Weekly Feature

Ed Reinke/AP

Facets of the U.S. Presidential Election: The Electoral College

January 14, 2008
by Liz Colville
In 2000, George W. Bush was elected after winning more votes than Al Gore in the electoral college (Gore won the popular vote). Since then, the debate has reignited 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 even right?

What It Means

The electoral college, described here 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 help us better understand this subject and why it still exists today. They clear up the often-confusing question about the clout of the electoral vote vs. the popular vote. This page 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, is a legal alternative to the electoral college. The magazine In These Times, in a December 2007 article called “Dropping Out of Electoral College,” reported on Maryland’s passing of the NPV into law, and illuminated just what the process could do, if ratified by the 49 remaining states:

“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.”
Read John Koza’s answers to some critical questions of the NPV, published by the Stanford Review.
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, another organization behind 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. Last year, the NPV died in both North Dakota and Montana. Many of the bill’s critics believe that big cities will monopolize the vote. An entry in FairVote.org’s blog defends that assumption, but the fact remains that, as the New York Times said, the NPV has “a long way to go.”

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