You might never have thought about the Electoral College until the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton despite the fact that Clinton received three million more votes than Trump did. The Electoral College is written into our Constitution, but now, many people are beginning to wonder about its value. Here, Election Central takes a closer look at why exactly the Electoral College exists, what it does, and how a case currently in front of the Supreme Court could change what elections look like in the future.
You may think that presidents are chosen directly by the vote of the people. But that’s not exactly true. Rather, presidents are chosen by the Electoral College. Each state gets a certain number of electors, based on its population. Each elector casts one vote. There are a total of 538 electoral votes, so whichever candidate gets a minimum of 270 wins.
This system was originally set up so that elections would not be chosen directly by citizen votes. But as the country has grown, it now has the effect of reducing the impact of large populated areas. For example, the entire state of Wyoming only has about 580,000 people, while New York City has over 8 million. But while New York City greatly outnumbers Wyoming, the difference in electoral votes is not proportional to that.
Those who want to abolish the Electoral College claim that it gives smaller, less populated states an unfair advantage. Wyoming, with its 580,000 people, receives three electors, while the state of New York (population 19.45 million) has 29. That means that there is an elector for every 193,000 people in Wyoming, but only one elector for every 671,000 people in New York. This gives the votes of people in smaller states more weight than the votes of people in large states. (This is also what makes it mathematically possible for someone to lose the popular vote by a significant number, but still win the presidency).
To make matters even more complicated, the Supreme Court is now trying to figure out what to do about so-called “faithless electors.”
Electors are supposed to vote for their party’s candidate–or at least that has been their traditional role for a very long time. But every so often, one of them decides not to. That person is called a “faithless elector.” This has happened about 180 times since the country was founded. Most recently, in 2016, a handful of Democratic electors decided not to cast their ballot for Clinton. Instead, they chose to vote for another Republican, in the hopes that they could convince some of their Republican colleagues to do the same and weaken Trump’s chances to claim the White House. The strategy failed, and these “faithless electors” were either fined or removed from their position. But they claimed that they were doing exactly what the Founders intended by exercising their own personal judgment when making their decision.
The question now facing the Supreme Court is whether or not states are allowed to punish or remove these “faithless electors.” In other words, are electors allowed to use their discretion in casting their ballot, or should they be required to select their party’s nominee? Nothing in the Constitution addresses whether or not states have the right to remove or fine electors for not voting for their party’s candidate. However, with the 2020 elections looming, many legal experts feel like now would be a bad time to make any major changes to the Electoral College. Some fear that changing the rules now might tip the whole election into chaos, or that there could be a massive campaign to influence electors. Therefore, these experts believe that a constitutional amendment might be a better way to address the issue.