When you cast your vote to elect Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, or Roseanne Barr for president (seriously, she’s the candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party), your vote doesn’t directly elect the person for whom you voted. And the person who gets the most votes in the nation doesn’t necessarily win the presidency. Why? Because of the Electoral College.
What is the Electoral College? We’ll try to explain …
SO, SERIOUSLY — WHAT IS THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE?
Sadly, there are no bongs being ripped in Electoral College dorms; it’s not a place. Instead, it’s a group of 538 people from all 50 states (and Washington, DC) who each have one electoral vote to cast, and the winner of the majority of those votes is elected president. Who they vote for is determined by the results of the general election … though not always by law … exactly. More on that later.
Each state is assigned electoral votes based on the size of its Congressional delegation. A state gets one vote for each Representative and one vote for each Senator. (Didn’t pay attention in Civics class? Every state has two Senators, but the number of Representatives is based on population.) For example, the state of Minnesota has eight U.S. Representatives and two U.S. Senators, so it gets 10 electoral votes. And yes, a candidate could win a majority of the popular vote, but lose the Electoral College (and therefore, the election). It’s happened four times, most recently in 2000: Al Gore had 500,000 more total votes than George W. Bush, but he had 500 fewer votes in Florida — supposedly — and so he lost the election.
WHO CHOOSES THE ELECTORS?
State Republican and Democratic party officials choose theirs. Independent candidates — and Roseanne — choose theirs themselves. The electors can be pretty much anyone other than a member of Congress or a federal employee; they can sometimes be seen wearing stupid hats and 87 campaign pins while whooping and hollering at party conventions.
WAIT, WHAT THE HELL DO THE ELECTORS DO AGAIN?
A candidate needs 270 electoral votes — more than 50 percent — to win. Each state’s electors agree to cast a vote for president and vice president based on their state’s popular vote. Unbelievably, 24 states don’t require electors by law to vote for the guy who wins, but hey, it’s never been an issue before! The electors congregate and vote in mid-December; so really, that’s the election that decides the presidency (and vice-presidency).
THIS IS INSANE, RIGHT?
Not exactly. Founding Father types were worried that heavily populated states would hold too much power over sparsely populated states. The Electoral College balanced things out a bit. However, the country is so dramatically different now than it was then — the federal government is much stronger, the country is way larger, etc. — that the College doesn’t necessarily serve that purpose. Some argue that it makes candidates visit and pay attention to smaller states and communities than they would otherwise, but that’s generally only the case if they’re swing states. Obama and Romney haven’t bothered to visit Kansas this year, for instance. Then again, who gives a shit what Kansas thinks? (Just kidding, Kansans!)
SO WHY DON’T WE GET RID OF IT?
The Electoral College process is described (though not by name) in the Constitution, so abolishing it would require an amendment proposed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, and ratified by three quarters of the states. No one is going to do the massive amount of work required to make that happen unless there’s a ton of popular support.