Election Issues

Ed Reinke/AP

Election Basics: The Electoral College

October 20, 2008
by Liz Colville
In 2000, George W. Bush was elected after winning more votes than Al Gore in the Electoral College, although Gore won the popular vote. Since then, the debate has raged over the Electoral College. Although it’s one of the oldest features of our voting system, detailed in full in the 12th Amendment of the Constitution and subsequent amendments, is it still relevant or fair?

What It Means

The Electoral College, described by HowStuffWorks as a “controversial mechanism,” was meant to ensure that neither Congress nor the “reckless” population could determine an election result. Instead, electors from each state, including U.S. representatives and senators, do the voting. Each state is given a different number of electors according to its population. As we found in 2000 and three other times in history, an electoral vote that goes against the popular vote decision is “entirely legal.”
The National Archives FAQ pages on the Electoral College provide a comprehensive overview of the subject and explain why the Electoral College still exists today. They clear up the often confusing question about the clout of the electoral vote vs. the popular vote. The site also links to governing laws and amendments that dictate the Electoral College’s process; for example, the 12th Amendment.

The NPV: The Electoral College with a Twist

The National Popular Vote, established by a Stanford University computer scientist named John Koza, offers a legal alternative to the Electoral College. In These Times magazine published a December 2007 article, “Dropping Out of Electoral College,” that reported on Maryland’s passing of the NPV into law, and illuminated just what the process could do, if ratified by the rest of the nation:

“Instead of a state awarding its electors to the top vote-getter in that state’s winner-take-all presidential election, the state would give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. This would be perfectly legal because the U.S. Constitution grants states the right to determine how to cast their electoral votes, so no congressional or federal approval would be required.”
Visit the official site of the organization behind the NPV, which includes some links on the left to “Editorial Supporters” of the reform and their accompanying articles. One example, a New York Times editorial published in 2007, said the measure is “something all Americans would benefit from, particularly the masses of voters routinely ignored when candidates focus on a few battleground states.”
FairVote.org, an organization that supports NPV, has a useful page that runs down all “controversial elections” in U.S. history, including Tilden vs. Hayes, Harrison vs. Cleveland, and Bush vs. Gore.

Long Live the Electors, Say Some

There were staunch supporters of the electoral college two hundred years ago, four years ago and currently. A bid for the NPV has failed in several states, including California, Rhode Island, Florida, Hawaii and Montana. Many of the movements’s critics believe that big cities will monopolize the vote. The FairVote blog argues against that assumption, but the fact remains that, as The New York Times asserted, the NPV has “a long way to go.”

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