For the last three posts, I have been chronicling the various Senate races taking place across America this November. I will continue to cover these as the primaries take place in the states, but for now, I want to turn to the main event – the Presidential Election.
If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard that Mitt Romney has now all but confirmed his position as the Republican nominee for President. This has looked inevitable for a number of months, but once Rick Santorum dropped out in early April, it became a formality for him to be nominated. As a result of this certainty in the Republican nominating process, the general election campaign has started in earnest, with President Obama starting to ramp up the attacks on Romney.
With this in mind, I thought that an interesting topic for a blog would be the process by which either Romney or Obama will be elected President in November.
In America, unique amongst all democracies, the election for the Head of State is decided by the use of an institution called the Electoral College, which was invented by the Founding Fathers and codified in Article 2 of the Constitution.
Now, the Electoral College itself is not really that important, it is simply the body which puts into effect what the voters decide using the process set out in the Constitution to elect members of the College. Once the election is decided, and the winner in each state is determined by a simple majority of the vote cast in each state, the members of the College elected by each state meet in their respective state capitals and cast their vote for the candidate who wins their state. This is a rubber stamp process and, with a few historical exceptions (so called “Faithless Electors”), the members of the college have no discretion to vote for anyone other than the popular vote winner of their state. The ballot boxes are then sent to the House of Representatives. The sitting Vice President presides over a joint session of Congress, which counts the votes, and the candidates with the most votes from around the country win the Presidency and Vice-Presidency respectively.
What is more interesting is how the members of the College are elected. Each state (and the District of Columbia, which is effectively Washington DC, which is not in a State) has the right to elect a certain number of electors – with the number based on the population of the state in question. The number of electors is decided by adding the number of Representatives a state sends to the House of Representatives (which is the measure based on population) and the number of Senators (of which each state has two). The District of Columbia, which doesn’t have any Senators, is also given credit for having two for the purposes of this process.
What this means is that no state can have fewer than 3 Electoral Votes (EVs) in the Electoral College, as each state has at least one Representative and two Senators. Even states with tiny populations, such as Wyoming, Alaska etc, get 3 votes in the Electoral College. The largest state, by some distance, is California, which has 55 electoral votes courtesy of its huge population; which gives it 53 Reps as well as its two Senators. Since 1964, the total of all the EVs from all the states (and DC) has been 538 votes. As a simple majority of all the EVs from around the country is needed to win the Presidency, 270 EVs is the magic number. It is possible for there to be a 269-269 tie, which has happened twice, but not since 1824. It would be mega-exciting if it happened again, but it is pretty unlikely.
I think a picture is required here, so this is how the Electoral College votes were assigned in the 2008 election – Obama v McCain:
This election was a pretty large win for Obama – 365 EVs to 173 EVs. Although the map looks disproportionately red (Republican), this is because the Republicans always win the Mid-West states, which are geographically enormous, but have very small populations (mainly because they are predominately corn fields). As these states only have small numbers of EVs, they are not particularly important in the Electoral College process.
There are a number of criticisms of the Electoral College as a means of electing the President. The primary one is that it creates the notion of “swing states”. What this means in practice is that about ten states are vital to either party’s chance of having their nominee elected President. This is because these are the states which are pretty evenly split ideologically, rather than the other 38 or so, which are very Democratic or Republican. The effect of this is that 95% of the campaigning in the election is done in these states, whilst the rest of the country is largely ignored. So you have massive states like California and New York (which will always elect the Democrat) completely ignored in the election process in favour of much smaller states like Missouri, which are evenly split. This would not happen if the election was determined by a popular vote. Suddenly, states with massive populations would become vital at the expense of smaller states.
So, which are these lucky (or unlucky, depends whether you like elections or not) states? You’re going to have to believe me on this one – but I can guarantee you that Obama will certainly, come hell or high water, win states which total 197 EVs. Similarly, Romney will win states which total 159 EVs. Add to that number states which, baring a landslide, will be won by either party – 24 for Obama and 22 for Romney. This takes their basic totals to 221 EVs for Obama and 181 EVs for Romney. This gives Obama a significant advantage.
Therefore, the election is only fought over 136 EVs. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to win approximately 25% of the total electoral votes. If you happen to live in these states, there will be no respite – every television programme will be constantly interrupted by political adverts, not a day will pass with your door unknocked or your phone unrung. Such is life in a swing state.
These states are currently*: Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, Pennsylvania and that most famous of all swing states, Florida.
There are other criticisms too. It is undemocratic – in that electors in small states such as Wyoming (3 EVs for a population of 532,668, a vote for every 177,556 people) get a lot more for their vote than in California (55 EVs for a population of 34,756,666, a vote for every 631,939 people).
It can also lead to the unedifying spectacle of the winner of the national popular vote losing to the winner of the Electoral College. Most famously, this happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote in the whole of the country by 533,000 votes, but lost in the Electoral College by 5 EVs. This happened because Gore won most of the big states, like NY and California by a huge margin, but lost some crucial, smaller, swing states by a tiny margin. As all of the EVs for a state are awarded to the winner, no matter how small the margin, he lost the election to George W. Bush. This “winner takes all” nature of the Electoral College also works to discriminate against third parties. For example, in 1992, a third party candidate, Ross Perot, won 19% of the popular vote, but didn’t get any EVs, because his support was spread across the states, and wasn’t concentrated enough to win any one state.
Having said all that, there have been various attempts to reform the Electoral College, all of which have failed. I personally like the system because it adds intrigue and is interesting for nerds like me. However, I can see its flaws – and think that it will be reformed eventually, although not for the foreseeable future. One idea that I quite like is for EVs to be assigned proportionately – so if Obama wins 60% of the popular vote in California, he would get 60% of the EVs. This would discourage the idea of swing states, and spread the election around the country, which can only be good for the democratic process.
* I will do a piece later in the electoral cycle about how these states will give their EVs – but that’s for another post.