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The US Electoral College: An Explanation and a Defence

Those outside the US tend to regard the Electoral College with a mixture of profound suspicion and incomprehension. In truth, it is easier to demystify than, for instance, the myriad nuances of Irish parliamentary elections, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THIS PAST MONDAY was Labour Day in the United States, a holiday that celebrates the country’s working people and its labour movement.

Every four years, it is also typically considered as the date when even politically disengaged Americans start to think about who they would like to be their next president.

2016 might be something of an exception to the general rule, given that the billionaire, reality television star and now Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has continued to make headlines throughout the usually sleepy summer months.

After delivering an excellent political speech at his party’s convention in July, Trump made a series of drastic political missteps and fell back significantly in both national and state-wide polls. He has made a lot of headlines for the wrong reasons.

Campaign 2016 Trump Source: Evan Vucci

While the numbers have tightened as of late – following some bad press for Hillary Clinton which has deepened the doubts that millions of Americans have about her character – most observers (this one included) still believe that the Democratic nominee will prevail on 8 November.

One of the most oft-cited reasons for this view is that the Electoral College maths is against Donald Trump.

Despite the assumptions of those who are close to the process, many Americans do not fully understand what the Electoral College is and how it works.

And those outside the US tend to regard it with a mixture of profound suspicion and incomprehension. In truth, it is easier to demystify than, for instance, the myriad nuances of Irish parliamentary elections. So here goes.

The explanation

Electoral College Source: AP/Press Association Images

All 50 states have a number of Electoral College votes in presidential elections.

The number is the equivalent of the total number of members of the US Senate and the US House of Representatives that voters in each of these states elect to serve on Capitol Hill.

States elect two US Senators and a number of members of the US House of Representatives in direct proportion to the size of their population.

By way of example, California, with a population of nearly 39 million, has two US Senators and 53 members of the US House of Representatives; Wyoming, with a population of 570,000, has two US Senators and a single member of the US House of Representatives. California has 55 Electoral College votes and Wyoming has three Electoral College votes.

The total amount of Electoral College votes from the 50 states – as well as Washington, DC, which has three – is 538. A total of 270 is required to win the presidency.

Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia award all of their Electoral College votes to whoever gets the most votes – no matter what the margin of victory.

Maine and Nebraska allocate their small number of Electoral College votes to the state-wide winner and the winner of their respective districts in the US House of Representatives.

The Republican and Democratic state parties select a slate of electors, who agree to fulfil a largely ceremonial role if their party’s presidential nominee and his/her running mate win in that state.

After all the popular votes have been counted and the result is clear, the winning slate of electors meets and votes in accordance with the outcome in the state. If the Republican nominees win the state, the electors are the Republican slate, and vice versa.

As such, and despite there being no constitutional prohibition on an elector declining to support the winner, so-called “faithless electors” are exceedingly rare.

Electors are also often bound by relevant state laws and/or party pledges. This year, they will convene on 19 December.

In short, that’s the Electoral College system. And it has its critics. They fault the system for a number of reasons, but foremost among them are:

  1. That a candidate can be elected president without winning at least a plurality of the popular vote;
  2. That it engenders an excessive focus on “swing” or battleground states.

The first scenario has only unfolded in two presidential elections in the 19th century and then, most infamously, in 2000 when George W. Bush won the presidency despite Al Gore garnering 51 million popular votes to his 50.5 million.

Bush Nobel Al Gore and George Bush Source: AP/Press Association Images


The second critique is unassailable to an extent.

Yet the question is whether a focus on “swing” states is a bad thing. It’s not.

The fact is that the states that have been battlegrounds in presidential elections for some time now are microcosms of the entire country. States like Pennsylvania – sometimes described as ‘Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between’ – are much more representative of America as a whole than most ‘safe’ states, such as Massachusetts, California or South Carolina.

Additionally, a substantial percentage of the population resides in or adjacent to very large urban centres. If the Electoral College were done away with and the outcome of presidential elections was determined by popular vote, candidates’ resources and attention would be much more directed at winning the votes of urbanites and suburbanites.

The Electoral College system, in which just one of 11 or 12 battleground states of various sizes could potentially be decisive, militates against any such temptation.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, some critics of the Electoral College overlook the federal nature of the US. Since its foundation, achieving the ideal balance between the power of the states and of national government has proven tricky.

Indeed, the country’s bicameral legislature, with equal representation for all states in one house and representation according to population in the other, is a reflection of its founders’ recognition that this balance was vitally important.

The Electoral College, which preserves for all 50 states, large and small alike, a specific role in choosing the country’s president, is another.

Some alterations that have been suggested to the Electoral College system are meritorious. For example, the approach taken by Maine and Nebraska is now being examined by other state legislatures and advocates.

But scrapping altogether an institution that has largely served the United States well would be a bad idea – notwithstanding the fact that I, too, was not pleased with either the outcome or the aftermath of the presidential election in 2000.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com. He will be speaking about the 2016 US presidential election at the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, Co. Wexford this Saturday. More information is available at kennedysummerschool.ie.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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