News Archives

The Electoral College

November 2, 2016

During assembly on Wednesday, November 2, Gabe Fleisher '20 explained the origins and workings of the Electoral College. Gabe is the editor-in-chief of "Wake Up To Politics," a daily political newsletter that strives to "inform readers with the most non-partisan and comprehensive yet understandable version of the news that really matters." He has been featured in media outlets such as MSNBC, NPR, Time and The Washington Post. Gabe is a member of the JBS Current Events Club established last year to bring the school information about national and international news through assembly presentations — to provide objective information to all students who can then apply their own political/social lenses. Gabe's prepared remarks on the presidential election follow:

As you are probably aware, America will be electing a new president this November - but who, really, is doing the electing? We say that “our votes count,” but do they? When you - or your parents - go the polls next week, does your vote really determine the winner of the presidential election. Yes...and no.

When the Founders were crafting our Constitution, the process of electing a Chief Executive arose, like many other things, out of compromise. Delegates had vastly different ideas of how the President should be elected: some believed Congress should elect a President, some believed the state legislatures should. Some didn’t even support the idea of a Presidency, and instead advocated for a King similar to the one they had just declared independence from. The most radical of the delegates believed the people should elect the President, a crazy idea in the 1780’s. In the end, the delegates found a middle ground: in a manner decided by that state’s legislature, each state would choose a set number of electors based on their congressional representation, and those electors would choose the President. Thus, the Electoral College was born.

The Electoral College is made up of 538 “electors.” A state has the same amount of electors as they have members of Congress: two senators, plus the total number of representatives they have in the House. Representation in the House is allocated by population, so California, the most populous state, has 55 electors, while the least populous state, Wyoming, has only three. In addition, Washington, D.C., even though they have no Senators or Representatives, has three electors - bringing us to the total of 538.

Electors were originally chosen by the state legislatures in most states, but since the Civil War, have all been chosen by popular vote. Most states, like Missouri, just list the actual candidates for President on the ballot, although eight states list the names of the electors on their ballots. The Democratic and Republican Parties in each state choose a slate of electors beforehand, so whether they are named on the ballot or not, when you vote for a presidential candidate, you are really voting for a local political operative who will vote for that candidate when the Electoral College meets in December.

48 states award their electoral votes using a winner-take-all system: the candidate who wins the state wins all of that state’s electoral votes, no matter the margin of victory. So, a Republican in a very liberal state or a Democrat in a very conservative state probably has no sway over where any of their state’s electoral votes go. Two states (Maine and Nebraska), however, award electoral votes to the overall winner of the state and also by congressional district, meaning a candidate can win electoral votes by winning just a pocket of a state.  These rules make it very difficult for a third party candidate to win the election, as they would have to get on the ballot in every state and defeat the major party candidates in states that have traditionally voted one way.  The last time a third party candidate won any Electoral votes was in 1968 - although that may change this year, as I will show you in a little bit.

The President is not officially elected until the Electoral College deems him/her the winner. Electors meet at their state capitals to cast their votes on December 19, and send the results to Congress - which formally certifies the winner on January 6, two weeks before Inauguration Day. In 29 states, electors can vote against the winner of the popular vote in their state, although it has only happened twice since 1988 and it has never altered the result of an election.

In a way, presidential elections are really like 50 individual elections, with candidates needing to win some combination of states to get to 270 electoral votes, a majority. However, we do have some idea of how the electoral map will look. [Gabe showed a map that indicated Red states, Blue states and Tan states, in which the race is tightest.] So here, roughly is our starting map. Based on polling and states that have consistently voted for the same party in the past, we can be fairly confident that Hillary Clinton will win the 263 electoral votes in blue, while Trump is probably guaranteed the 164 electoral votes in red. The nine closest states are in tan. Already, as you can see, Clinton starts out with a large advantage - as she only needs seven more electoral votes to win, and those could come from any combination of the battleground states.

So here we look closer at those states [Gabe showed a chart of the ten states to watch: Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, Arizona, Georgia, Colorado, Maine and Utah], which are probably more or less the ones you’ve been hearing about in the news the past few weeks. These are the states expected to be closest and most important to the final outcome. According to the current RealClearPolitics average, Donald Trump leads polling in five of these states, while Clinton leads in four of them - enough for her to win the White House. You can also see Utah on here - a state that has voted Republican in every election since 1968, but due to Trump’s unpopularity in the state, could be won by an Independent candidate named Evan McMullin. Trump is leading in Utah polling right now, although McMullin is running close behind him.

Here is how the map would look if that polling proves correct [Gabe showed a map with Clinton winning ]. In that scenario, Clinton wins comfortably, getting over 300 electoral votes - less than President Obama in 2012, but more than the 270 needed to win. This scenario, or something close to it, is probably the most likely - with Clinton winning, and getting somewhere around 300 electoral votes.

However, polling is tightening - and Donald Trump could still win [Gabe showed a slide with Trump winning]. For him to eke out a victory, Trump will have to win all nine of those states, as you can see here - no room for error. If he loses one, the presidency is Clinton’s. Trump still has a path to victory, but it is not like Clinton’s - where she only has to win one or two of the battleground states. Trump starts out with such a severe disadvantage that he’ll have to truly pull off the unlikely, and win all nine of those states, which would still give him just five more electoral votes than the needed 270. According to polling, this is less likely - but polling is not always correct, and it is still a very possible scenario.

So the election may feel more like a numbers game now, as the Electoral College means you are not voting directly for a candidate. How did this system come about? Really, it came down to trust, and the Founders believing another check was necessary on American voters before they chose their President. Remember, when the founders wrote the Constitution hardly any nations had a democratically elected national leader.  Many people were unsure whether or not the American people could be trusted with such an important decision.  The Electoral College exists to provide a potential buffer against the people making an unwise decision.  Given the way in which both major candidates are viewed in this election, maybe they were on to something.