As Election Day draws closer, exploring the different aspects of government and their role in the election can be helpful to first-time voters. The electoral college is one aspect of the election that some have trouble understanding.
Matthew Ellison, online professor in the Texas Tech Department of Political Science, said when a person is voting for president, they basically vote for their preference to the electors, and then the electors vote.
“They’re actually going to be the ones who select the president,” Ellison said.
Forty-eight states use a winner takes all system in the electoral college, Ellison said. This means whoever wins the popular vote in that state will win the electoral vote as well. A president needs 270 out of 538 electoral college votes to win most of the electoral college and therefore the presidency.
However, Ellison said the electors are still bound to what happens in the statewide races.
“Most states’ laws say that electors have to vote for the statewide popular vote,” Ellison said.
Knowing the history of the electoral college also could be beneficial when attempting to understand its purpose.
Mark McKenzie, associate professor in the Tech Department of Political Science, said the electoral college represents a compromise between direct election of a president and election by congress.
The U.S. does not have a direct election for president, McKenzie said. Instead, states host small elections within the state, and then the electoral college casts their votes based on the popular votes of their state.
“It was sort of like a convenient solution,” McKenzie said.
The electoral college was a compromise in two ways, McKenzie said. First, it allows for a popular election if the state wants one. Most states allow for popular election of electoral college members.
When it was created, the electoral college gave slave states and small states compromise, McKenzie said.
Each state is promised two votes because of the two senators, McKenzie said. The amount of electoral college members for a state is based on the number of representatives from the state plus the two senators. For Texas that would be 38.
With this system it is possible to get a wrong winner, McKenzie said. A “wrong” winner is when a candidate wins the electoral college vote but loses the popular vote. This situation occurred in 2016 when President Donald Trump won the electoral vote but not the popular vote and became president.
“If we have that happen a bunch more times, then I think people will start to question the value of the electoral college system,” McKenzie said.
A disadvantage of the electoral college is the occasional situation of a “wrong” winner, McKenzie said. Although, the advantage is the forcing of presidential candidates to campaign.
The Founding Fathers could not decide on a way to elect the president at the Constitutional Convention, McKenzie said. They explored two other options before settling on the electoral college.
The first option was to have Congress elect president, similar to Parliament electing a prime minister, McKenzie said.
“What many people were afraid of with that kind of solution for a president was that the president would be connected to Congress instead of independent of Congress,” McKenzie said.
The three branches of government are based off the separation of powers, McKenzie said, and having Congress elect the president conflicts that.
The other option was to have a popular vote, McKenzie said.
“Not many Constitutional Convention attendees were necessarily in favor of that,” McKenzie said.
There were concerns over small states and lack of representation due to small populations, McKenzie said. Additionally, communication was lacking in the late 1700s, meaning it was difficult for people to get information about presidential nominees.
“Obviously right now there wouldn’t be any problem with a direct election of the president if you wanted one,” McKenzie said, “access to information is easier and more speedily ready at our fingertips.”
Kevin Banda, assistant professor in the Tech Department of Political Science, said, in terms of the presidential election, the electoral college is all that matters. He said the electoral college does not make sense with a contemporary view of what democracy is.
Additionally, Banda said the founders did not want people to vote and did not think about a popular vote because it did not exist.
“It is this weird, archaic system that almost never matters, but has mattered more recently because the partisan tilt of states is more visible now,” Banda said.