How the electoral college works
By Matthew Skog
Voting is the foundation upon which democracy is built.
In light of the recent presidential election, many in the Chemeketa community have been left wondering how exactly the electoral process works for our nation’s highest office.
Contrary to popular belief, presidents are not elected by popular vote. When you cast your ballot, you’re actually voting for a representative in the electoral college. But what is the electoral college?
“It’s a process, not a place,” Maria Cruse, a political science instructor at Chemeketa, said. “It’s a process established in the constitution. It was set forth as a compromise between the election of a president by congress and the election of a president by popular vote.”
This compromise, known as the Connecticut Compromise, was originally conceived during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
“We select electors when we vote, and those electors vote for president and vice president,” Cruse said. “There’s 538 electors. Obviously as we all know, you need 270 to win. Each state gets the number of electors assigned to them by combining the number of senators they have with the number of house of representative members they have.
“In Oregon we have two senators, just like every other state, and in Oregon we have five members of the house of representatives, so we have seven electoral votes. So there is some representation by population because of the way it’s structured. That’s one of the things I hear often: ‘there’s no relation to population.’ Well there is.”
While the idea is to keep the number of electors per state as representative as possible, in practice it doesn’t always work out that way.
“Ideally those five house members would represent the exact same number of people, whether it be in Oregon or Wyoming or wherever,” Cruse said. “But we know, realistically, that’s not the case. We can’t get it to the number. So even though every house member represents roughly 750,000 people, it’s not going to be exact. It’s only reallocated every 10 years when we do the census. The population could have shifted greatly in states, and so it may be way off. We don’t know until the next census, and then we’ll know what the new population changes are and then we’ll reallocate these house seats and therefore electors.”
Two states have alternative ways of awarding electoral votes.
“There are a couple of states, Nebraska and Maine, that have a little bit different way of doing it,” Cruse said. “In all the other states it’s a winner-take-all system. If you win by more than 50 percent, you win all of the electoral votes. But in those two states they do it a little bit differently so that there’s a proportional component to the way they award their electors.”
583 may seem like an arbitrary number of electors, but there’s actually a specific reason behind it.
“There are 435 members of the house, 100 senators, and the District of Columbia is given three electors by the 23rd amendment,” Cruse said.
However, while the number of electors assigned to each state is based on congressional representation, the electors themselves are chosen another way.
“The way it works is electors are selected usually by the political parties prior to the election,” Cruse said. “They have to be certified that these are the electors that will represent their political party’s candidate if their political party indeed wins the popular vote. There’s a group of electors certified for whoever is on the ballot, and if that candidate wins the popular vote then those electors go and cast votes in the electoral college.”
Electors who decide to defect from their pledged candidate are referred to as faithless electors. While instances of electors defecting from the winner of the popular vote or their pledged candidate are rare, electors are not legally bound to any candidate.
“There’s no requirement that they vote the way the popular vote goes,” Cruse said. “The constitution doesn’t require it nor does federal law. State laws often have requirements that they vote the way the popular vote goes. But even if they refuse, what you can do to them varies from state to state. Maybe you could fine them $1,000. There’s really no way to hold them accountable.”
After the electors have cast their votes for president and vice-president, the votes are taken to congress to be counted.
“Ultimately the electors’ votes are counted during a joint session of congress in the beginning of January,” Cruse said. “Congress certifies a winner, assuming there is a winner, and then that person is inaugurated on January 20.”
Understanding how the process works is key to participating in a democracy.
“It’s not as complex as it sounds, but it’s not something we’re really aware of,” Cruse said. “[People] vote and they think the person who gets the most votes is going to win… you can get more of the popular vote and still lose the electoral college. We’ve seen it twice now this century.”