Study Guide

Executive Branch & Presidents - The Presidential Election Process

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The Presidential Election Process

  • Presidents are chosen by Electoral College
  • Constitution established convoluted system; each state gets a number of Electoral College votes equal to its number of senators plus representatives
  • Electoral College favors small states over large states
  • Four presidents have been elected despite losing national popular vote
Still want to be president? The next thing you need to do is sort out the Electoral College—truly one of the great curiosities in our electoral system. Contrary to what many people believe, we do not vote directly for the president. Instead, we vote for "Electors" who vote on our behalf. This system was the brainchild of the Constitution's framers—and in the beginning, there was some logic to it.

The question the framers asked was: how should the president be selected? Some, like James Madison, suggested he should be elected directly by the people. But others disagreed. Some simply did not trust the people to make so weighty a decision. Others questioned whether the people could acquire the information needed to make a good choice. Without TV, radio, or even national newspapers, could citizens hundreds of miles from the nation's capital possibly get the information they needed to make a judicious choice? Many said no—and therefore, as an alternative, they suggested that Congress should elect the president. But this idea presented its own problem. If Congress chose the president, the framers quickly realized, Congress would therefore control the president—a violation of their foundational belief that the branches of government should be separated.

So what was the solution? The Electoral College, a select body of Electors that could be better informed than the people, but that met for one purpose only: to elect the president before dissolving for four years.

Okay. So far, so good. This Electoral College idea seemed reasonable enough. But the next question was: how many Electors should each state get? The big states argued that representation in the Electoral College should be proportional to population. The little states countered all states should have an equal voice. The solution: a compromise. States received a number of Electors equal to their representatives in the House of Representatives (the principle of proportionality) plus two, a number equal to their representation in the Senate (the principle of equality).

Again, we can see the logic—but we are already drifting toward a screwy conclusion. By handing every state two additional Electors, the framers made the voters from some states more influential than others. Just do the math. To take the most dramatic example, as of 2008, California—the nation's most populous state, home to about 36.5 million people—had 55 Electors. Wyoming, with just 523,000 residents, had three Electors. If you do a little long division on the back of your napkin, you'll see how much those two "extra" Electors in each state's Electoral College allotment skew the states' representation in presidential elections. California ends up with a ratio of one Elector for every 664,603 residents, while Wyoming gets one for every 174,277. The odd result: as far as the Electoral College is concerned, the vote of one Wyomingite is worth as much as 2.99 Californians!

Is that fair? Depends where you live. It's no wonder that resistance to changing the Electoral College comes from sparsely populated states like Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska that have their electoral weight increased by the current system.

Odd as it may be, the allocation of Electors wasn't even the worst part. The Constitution left the method of selecting Electors to the individual states. Eventually, they all got it right. In the first presidential election, won by George Washington in 1789, only half of the states allowed the people to actually vote for their Electors. In the other states, the state legislatures made the decision. But almost immediately, Americans' democratic instincts asserted themselves. By 1832, only South Carolina (historically speaking, the state had always been a bit of a troublemaker) allowed the state legislature, rather than the people, to choose its Electors.

But getting things completely right would be too much to ask. So eventually, all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) also decided that their Electors would be awarded on a winner-take-all basis. In California, for example, a candidate could win by just one vote, but he or she would receive all of the state's 55 Electoral College votes.

This is why pre-election analyses in presidential contests nowadays always focus only on certain states. The simple fact of the matter is that you can win all of the Wyomings, North Dakotas, and Alaskas that you want; unless you take a few big dogs like California, New York, Texas, or Florida, you're never going to get elected. And if you do, even by one vote, you'll be richly rewarded. But this also means that it is possible for you to actually lose the popular vote but still win the Electoral College, and therefore the presidency. (Just ask Sam Tilden, Grover Cleveland, and Al Gore how that felt.) You can blow off the little states, squeak out a victory in the big eleven (California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey) and you're in.

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