The body of electors empowered under the Constitution to select a president is popularly known as the Electoral College. Article II, Section I provides: “Each State shall appoint in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress,” with the proviso that no senator or representative or officer of the U.S. government may be an elector. To succeed, a presidential candidate must receive a majority in the Electoral College, which is 270 out of 538 votes. Formally, voters choose a spate of electors who are pledged to support a particular candidate’s election in the Electoral College. Rarely do the names of electors appear on the ballot. The total electoral vote of a state accrues to the winner of the popular vote.
While some, perhaps many, Americans view the presidential race as an intense national battle between contending forces, the reality of the Electoral College system creates a contest waged across fifty states, each of which is a separate, winner-take-all election for the electoral vote in each state and in the District of Columbia. The primary goal of each candidate, then, is to capture 270 electoral votes. At that point, a presidential nominee can claim the mantle of President-Elect of the United States. As a consequence of this electoral arrangement, it is understandable that when candidates and their staffs map out an Electoral College strategy, they speak of winning state electoral votes, not the national popular vote.
The electoral map dominates the strategies of presidential candidates. As much as possible, candidates concentrate their efforts in the larger electoral states, such as California, New York, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and Texas—since winning those nine states alone would guarantee 243 electoral votes. Of course, the makeup of the electorate in each state—its views, values, issues, positions, party allegiance, and partisan tendencies—make it more or less accessible to each candidate. As a consequence, candidates pour campaign resources into those states that they believe they can win, and those that they might lure away from their opponent and thus capture. The Electoral College structure usually means that candidates seldom campaign in states in which they have little chance of winning; nor do they campaign in states that are considered sure-bets for the other side.
The popular depiction of the electoral map by members of the media, as “red” and “blue” states has proved to be a helpful guide in many elections, facilitating voters’ understanding of the political leanings of various states, but this device is only a guide and may prove inaccurate in some elections. Indeed, in the 2016 presidential race, Americans saw the traditional orientation of states change color: states once considered blue became red, as Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, won the electoral votes in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, states considered to be part of the blue “Big Ten Wall,” that were expected to fortify the candidacy of Secretary Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. A shifting electoral map would pose more strategic challenges for candidates in their search for a winning combination of state electoral votes.
The use of the Electoral College as a mechanism for choosing the president of the United States remains somewhat baffling to many Americans. The Electoral College represented for the Framers of the Constitution a compromise between two less than satisfactory proposals for selecting the president. Some delegates to the Constitutional Convention preferred the system employed by England: legislative selection of the president. It was quickly recognized, however, that congressional selection of the president would be at odds with the separation of powers scheme to which the Convention was committed. Several leading Framers, including James Madison, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris favored a direct popular vote. Opponents found fault with this approach, however, by pointing to the likelihood that many voters would have little or no knowledge of presidential candidates. A remedy for this problem might be found in the system of voting for electors who would have knowledge of the candidates, and could exercise their reputable judgment in the selection of the president.
While the Electoral College was useful during the founding period and beyond, at least until voters might acquire adequate information and knowledge about the candidates, it is up for debate whether it has outlived its rationale and utility in an age in which the electorate can know everything it wishes to know about candidates—and often more than we care to know. In addition, the reality that in an age of Democracy, the popular vote, that is, the will of the people, can be overridden by the Electoral College, is undemocratic and invites criticism of the mechanism as an anachronism. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, for example, won some two million more popular votes than Donald Trump.
Some have argued the weaknesses of the Electoral College: It distorts the popular vote and magnifies the impact of some groups and states in the presidential election. It is unrepresentative. It grants a slight numerical advantage to smaller states. Since the number of votes cast in the Electoral College is based on congressional apportionment and Senate representation, and not on turnout, states with low turnouts are rewarded, not penalized. The real problem with the Electoral College, some say, is that it involves the winner-take-all system. It disenfranchises those who voted for the loser in the state, since all the electoral votes are cast for the winner—in effect permitting the majority to cast their own votes as well as the votes of the losers for their candidate. Thus, members of the minority party in a state that is a one-party state—Democrats in Idaho and Republicans in California, for example—are routinely disenfranchised.
Concerns about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College are spiked when the losing candidate actually wins the popular vote. We have discussed Hillary Clinton’s loss of the electoral vote to Donald Trump, even though she won some two million more popular votes. In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore lost the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush, but won the popular vote. This disjunction between the will of the people and the seating of a president based on the Electoral College has also previously occurred in 1824 and 1876.