The United States is far less than the shining example of democratic governance it claims to be. Roughly fifty percent of the eligible population simply doesn’t bother to vote in a presidential election. Furthermore, most people, including most Americans, think that the candidate with the highest popular vote wins the election.
Ask Al Gore if this is true. In the 2000 election, running against George Bush, the Democrat had nearly three-quarters of a million more votes than did his opponent, yet Bush won the election. How did that happen? The short answer is the unique institution known as the Electoral College.
Most Americans are clueless as to how this anachronistic and fundamentally undemocratic institution actually works. Eight years ago they – and much of the rest of the world – waited for more than a month before a determination was made as to which candidate won Florida’s disputed twenty-seven electoral votes. As it turned out, George Bush was alleged to have defeated Gore in Florida by fewer that 1,000 votes. Yet, the Republican was awarded all twenty-seven of Florida’s votes, allowing him to eke out a narrow five vote victory in the Electoral College and, consequently, the American presidency. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Florida’s governor in those days was Jeb Bush, George’s younger brother.
That’s Florida. With two exceptions – Maine and Nebraska – all American states award their allocated electoral votes to the candidate who has the most votes. If Bush would have beaten Gore by a single vote, he still would have gotten all twenty-seven of Florida’s electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine allocate them according to congressional district, but even there it’s winner-take-all. These are the curiosities and anomalies of the American system of federalism
Those of you following the current election closely might have noticed that neither Obama nor McCain nor Biden nor Palin have done any campaigning whatsoever – not a speech, not an appearance and, most importantly, no TV advertising money – in California, Texas or New York. Why not? Good question!
These three states are the most populous in the United States. Among the three of them they have a population of more than eighty million; about one-quarter of the US total. More importantly, they have a total of 120 electoral votes. So why aren’t McCain and Obama scrambling all over each other in search of votes in these three states?
It’s simple. The answer again is the Electoral College and the fact that states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. California and New York are safe Democratic states and Texas is equally safe Republican. Obama knows he has no chance in Texas and McCain knows the same about California and New York. If McCain knows he’s going to lose California anyway, it doesn’t make any difference whether he gets three million or five million votes there. He still loses 55 those electoral votes, so why bother? Why spend time and money on a lost cause? Obama thinks the same way regarding Texas. If McCain wins Texas, as he will, it makes no difference whether Obama gets three million votes or zero votes there.
The national popular vote, as such, doesn’t really count. What counts is the number of Electoral College votes. There are 538 of these and the candidate who manages to garner 270 of them will be the next President of the United States…even were he to lose the popular vote by one million or ten million or twenty million votes.
Where did this ridiculous institution come from? Why was it written into the Constitution? How does it work?
First of all, one should be aware that the Electoral College never meets as a whole. The 538 electors who will elect the next president meet separately in their own states and cast their ballots. The EC has no president or chair. It has no headquarters. Its members are virtually unknown to each other or to anyone else beyond a narrow circle of party leaders in the several states.
For example, I vote in Connecticut. I have no idea as to the identity of the Obama/Democratic electors. I know only that there are seven of them because that’s how many electors Connecticut has been allocated. When I vote for Obama I’m actually voting for people who’ve promised to vote form him.
Despite America’s insistent self-delusion, the Founding Fathers were not at all interested in enshrining democratic participation when they drew up the US Constitution in 1787. The War of Independence against Britain had unleashed “popular passions”; that is to say, the masses of the American people (slaves excepted, of course) wanted direct and local control of their government. This popular passion frightened the post-colonial elite. Something had to be done. Something was done.
The elite got together in Philadelphia in 1787 and replaced the first American constitution with the one that exists to this day; the world’s oldest written constitution. Fearing, most of all, popular indignation they wrote a document designed to restrain the popular impulse. The Electoral College was part of this effort. The concept was to place a layer of “wise citizens” between the people and the elected office. The masses would vote for electors (wise citizens) who would then make the final choice.
There’s no question that, over the two plus centuries since these events, the American system has democratized to a significant degree. I would point out, however, that this relative democratization is the consequence of the unremitting struggles of the popular classes and not a consequence of elite gratuity.
Back to the Electoral College. Each of the fifty states is allocated a number of electors equal to its representation in the US Congress. These electors are NOT the actual members of Congress. In fact, the Constitution explicitly forbids them from serving as electors.
There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate. House seats are allocated according to relative population and each state gets two senators. That comes out to 535. A constitutional amendment in 1961 gave the District of Columbia (Washington) three electors bringing the total to 538. I would also be remiss in not pointing out that the mostly African-American Washington DC has no voting representation in Congress.
The magic number here is 270. A majority. Could there be a tie at 269 Electoral College votes? Yes, there could. I’ll get to that in a moment.
When Americans go to vote on November 4 they will actually be voting for electors “pledged” to vote for a particular candidate; in this case either McCain or Obama. The electors in the various states are appointed either by the state party leaders or by the candidates or a combination of both.
When I vote in Connecticut I’m voting for electors pledged to Obama. Electors occasionally violate their pledge. That’s not a violation of the Constitution. A month after the election the various electors who were chosen on November 4 will meet in their fifty state capitals and cast their ballots for president. Those ballots will be collected and sent on to Washington where they will be opened and counted by the new Congress when it begins its 2009 session in January.
In most cases, of course, the Electoral College vote reflects the popular vote; but not always, as Al Gore can attest. Thus, the current election does not involve those states that are either “safe Republican” or “safe Democratic”. They’re simply not contested. The “losers” votes in the “safe states” don’t count for anything. The contest actually involves a handful of states which might vote either way: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Minnesota, etc. And, of course, that’s where the candidates are campaigning and the money is being spent.
Whoever reaches 270 electoral votes will be the next president. But what happens if there’s a tie at 269. Prof Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia has suggested this would amount to an international embarrassment. Indeed it would.
A tie is unlikely, but entirely possible. In the event of such a tie the House of Representatives (435 members) would elect the president and the Senate (100 members) would elect the vice-president. However, there’s a kicker here. The Senate would elect the VP by a simple majority. No ties are possible in the Senate because the President of the Senate (the sitting VP) can vote to break it.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in the House. The Constitution stipulates that, in the event of an Electoral College deadlock, the House will choose the president with each state casting one vote. This is referred to as the “unit rule”. This means that huge states – California – and small states – North Dakota – get an equal vote. Since there are multiple representatives from both parties in the big states, it’s possible that a state could be deadlocked as to how to cast its one vote and, therefore, deprived of that vote because it couldn’t decide how to cast it. In such an eventuality, the person chosen as VP by the Senate would be the “Acting President” until a resolution of the conundrum. That will likely be Joe Biden, the Democrat, since the Democrats look to take control of the Senate in this election.
If all this sounds incredibly complicated it’s because it is. This is, however, the way the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest democracy” conducts its business. A far more democratic system would be for the American people to vote for the candidate of their choice. The candidate with the most votes would be declared the winner. This would also mean that the candidates would have to campaign in each of the fifty states because every vote would count. From my point of view, this would certainly not be ideal, but it would be an extraordinary improvement over the absurdity that presently exists.