Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

How the Electoral College Works Today

by Gary L. Gregg, director of the MCCONNELL CENTER

This is the third installment of columns exploring the history and operation of the Electoral College. The previous two explored the origins and evolution of the institution. Today we look at the underlying mathematical assumptions that shape our elections.

How does the Electoral College work today?

Over time, the Electoral College has democratized and does not function as the framers who created it intended. They intended electors to be virtuous civic leaders who would deliberate in private and vote for an outstanding American to be president of the United States. Within decades of its creation, however, we democratized the system and it now functions as a way to do election math rather than as the independent body that was intended.

The Electoral College is like the rest of the Constitution in that it treats the states as the essential political unit of our electoral system. There is no single national electorate in the logic or in the foundational text of the constitutional order. Representatives in Congress are divided out by population, but all within the boundaries of individual states with every state being guaranteed at least one member, no matter how small they may be. Senators are divided equally among the states. And the Electoral College votes are divided out among the states equal to their number of representatives plus senators.

So, Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes because they have 18 members in the House of Representatives and 2 United States Senators. Montana, with a fraction of Pennsylvania’s population, only has 3 electoral votes because as a state it is guaranteed the minimum representation of one member of the House and two in the Senate.

In total, 538 electoral votes are spread over the 50 states and Washington, D.C., the District having been given representation in the Electoral College with the passage of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1961.  To win the presidency, a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes, which represents a majority of the total.

So, that is the basic Electoral College math. The next question is, how do the states distribute the votes they are given?

The Constitution leaves it totally up to the state legislatures to choose how they would like to distribute their votes. As I said previously, the framers of the Constitution assumed the states would appoint top civic leaders who would deliberate on the candidates and give their votes to the candidates they found most worthy of the office. As American political culture democratized, however, the states amended the way they distributed votes accordingly. Today every state conducts an election and distributes the electoral votes to the winner of that popular election.

Opponents of the Electoral College who argue we should have a popular election, it should be clear, are wrong in arguing there is no popular election now. There are, indeed, 51 popular and democratic elections that take place each election in the individual states and Washington, DC. What they are really arguing for is something alien to the American constitutional structure—a single, nation-wide constituency unimpacted by state boundaries.

All states except Maine and Nebraska have elected to distribute their votes on a winner-take-all basis. This is often called the “unit rule” and is the primary reason winning whole states is so important today. Put simply, if you win the state, even by one vote, you get all the electors (more on those next time) allotted for that state. I happen to be writing this in the state of Michigan and the Wolverine State can be instructive to look at. In 2016 Donald Trump received just 47.6% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 47.3% here. He received, however, 100% of the 16 Electoral College vote from Michigan.

This “unit rule” has profound consequences, which we will take up some other time but suffice it to say that it is really the reason why the states matter so much as states in our presidential elections. The two exceptions, as I said, are Maine and Nebraska. They have both adopted a plan whereby they count the votes both in congressional districts and state-wide. The state-wide winner gets the two votes allotted to the state because of their two Senators. The other votes are distributed according to who wins the election in the congressional district. So, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the overall vote in Maine, but Donald Trump won one of the two congressional districts. So, the Electoral College vote from Maine was three votes for Hillary Clinton and one for Donald Trump.

So, what does this all mean? The Electoral College is a system of counting votes, of doing electoral math. Like every other election under the Constitution, it treats the states as the vital units of representation and decision making. The states conduct popular democratic elections in their states and allot the votes to the winners.

Because each state is treated as being an equal partner in the United States Senate, they also have some level of equality with all others in the Electoral College. This is the source of some consternation by those who see it as unfair or undemocratic that small states like Montana and Utah and Vermont are treated as having some equality with the behemoths like California, Texas and Pennsylvania.

It is this basic math that insures big population centers don’t swamp more rural areas. It is this way of doing electoral math that insures states matter as states and candidates take a variety of states seriously. It’s the math that fundamentally shapes our campaigns and the decisions and priorities of our candidates.

But, after the campaigns and the people vote, what happens? And who are these “electors” anyway? Those topics will be taken up in the next installment.

Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center and host of the podcast Vital Remnants

Discussion Questions:

  1. Given the role of the states, does the system of vote distribution make sense, or is there a better system?
  2. Why do you think the framers connected the presidential election system to the Senate?
  3. Is the electoral college important for protecting the interests of rural areas? What would happen to their interests if we had a nationwide system of popular voting? How many cities would a candidate have to win in order to win the election?

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