Electoral College 101: How it works. Why we're stuck with it.(Read article summary)
Why is 270 the magic number on Election Day? Because it's the number of Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. A look at the messy system the Founding Fathers bequeathed us.
Andy Colwell/Erie Times-News/AP
The Electoral College: Itâ€™s much more than a boring vestige of 18th century political theory. Itâ€™s also the process by which US presidents are actually chosen, and a creaky machine thatâ€™s driven voters batty for over 200 years.
But itâ€™s in the US Constitution (Article II, Section I) and itâ€™s not going away anytime soon.
So hereâ€™s what you need to know about it to pass your Decoder 101 final exam:
â€˘ Point one is that under the Electoral College you donâ€™t vote directly for your favored presidential candidate. You may think that you do, and thatâ€™s what the line on your ballot may say, but what youâ€™re really voting for is a slate of state electors who say they also support the nominee in question.
If â€śDancing with the Starsâ€ť worked this way, you wouldnâ€™t vote directly for a couple, but for judges whoâ€™d already indicated they favored your choice. These judges would then travel to Philadelphia via horse-drawn carriage for a season finale aired live from Constitution Hall and hosted by a Ben Franklin hologram.
OK, that last part we made up. But the part about the elected electors is true.
â€˘ Point two is that each state gets one elector per member of Congress. If youâ€™re Alaska, you get three, because youâ€™ve got two senators and one representative. If youâ€™re California, youâ€™ve got 55, because youâ€™ve got two senators and 53 representatives. The total of US electoral votes is 538. Thatâ€™s why 270 will be the magic number on Election Day night â€“ itâ€™s half of 538, plus one.
We understand the math there may be more than any actual pundits in the crowd can handle. Our advice to them is to just relax and lie down on a green room couch until New York Times polling pro Nate Silver walks in and explains it to you.
â€˘ Point three is that a candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state gets all its electoral votes. The exceptions to this rule are Nebraska and Maine, where the state winner gets the two electoral votes derived from the two senators, while the candidate who wins each congressional district gets the electoral vote derived from that representative.
Got that? No? Perhaps thatâ€™s why the other states donâ€™t do it: the Electoral College is complicated enough without adding layers.
Also there is no truth to the rumor that Nebraska and Maine are pushing for a constitutional amendment allowing the winners of their respective states, if different, to fight a lasso vs. chain saw cage match for two extra electors.
â€˘ Point four is that the electors elected by the electorate cast their votes in their own special election. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday after Election Day, the electors meet in their respective states for their choices to be recorded on a special certificate which is forwarded to Congress and the National Archives as part of that cycleâ€™s official records.
Previous to this, state governors produce a â€śCertificate of Ascertainmentâ€ť for Washington, which lists all the presidential candidates and their electors, who won, and so forth. Weâ€™d go further into this whole fascinating paperwork thing except weâ€™d like some readers still awake at the end. If you want to know more you can read about it here.
â€˘ Point five is that technically speaking the election of the president of the United States takes place during a joint session of Congress on January 6th following Election Day. Thatâ€™s when members of the House and Senate meet in the House chamber to preside over the counting of electorsâ€™ votes, which apparently take a long time to get to DC.
â€śThe Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results of the vote. The President of the Senate then declares which persons, if any, have been elected President and Vice President of the United States,â€ť concludes a National Archives summary of the process.
â€śIf any?â€ť Oy vey. Weâ€™d forgotten â€“ a 269 to 269 tie throws the whole thing into the House of Representatives. Thatâ€™s a subject for another story.
â€˘ Finally, our sixth and last point is that we got into this mess â€“ excuse me, system â€“ because the Founding Fathers faced a difficult and delicate task in establishing the way the infant US would pick its executive leader.
Think what it was like back in 1787. A group of 13 states, some small, some large, some slave, some free, was attempting to put together a process which satisfied them all. Plus there was no Google Maps, so travel between the ex-colonies was difficult and prone to wrong turns.
Many delegates to the constitutional convention just wanted the new president to be picked by Congress. But others were worried that this would lead to intrigue, and that the new leader would possibly feel beholden to those who chose him. (Yes, at the time they thought political parties, or â€śfaction,â€ť to be poisonous. Ha! If they saw how smoothly the president and Congress work together today to avoid doing anything about the looming â€śfiscal cliffâ€ť theyâ€™d realize their mistake.)
A core group feared direct democracy. The result was the Electoral College, a process which at the time seemed to stand between a one-person-one-vote approach and a congressional choice model.
The systemâ€™s details have changed over the years. At first, the electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, with the first place finisher winning the top spot, and the second place finisher gaining the vice-presidency. After a few tries this was changed so that the electors cast a ballot for a two-person ticket.
Today the system serves to balance the power of big and small states while spreading political power around the regions. At least a bit. Especially if you live in Ohio.