The 2020 election is just months away. On November 3, 2020, millions of American all across the country will go to the polls to cast their vote for president… or rather, for whom they believe their state’s Electoral College should choose for president!
The use of an Electoral College to decide who should occupy the White House is no accident, being crafted specifically by the framers of the U.S. Constitution shortly after America won its independence from Britain. In recent years, however, the use of the Electoral College has sparked a push for a national popular vote movement, which would see states award their Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead.
But just what exactly is the Electoral College anyway? Why was it created, and what’s the beliefs behind the rising national popular vote movement. We explore everything in-depth below!
The Primary Process: The Road to the Electoral College
Before the Electoral College can actually vote on the office of president, each political party must first determine who their candidate for the office will be. The first round of voting is known as either a primary or caucus. So, what’s the difference?
How Caucus Elections Work
We know your chomping at the bits to learn about the caucus process, but first, a linguistic lesson. There are two conflicting origins for the word caucus. Some scholars believe a caucus in ancient Latin refers to a drinking vessel. The implication is that officials in Ancient Rome used to drink a lot at political gatherings. Another origin for caucus is from the Native American, Algonquian language in which caucus means adviser. Whatever the case may be, a caucus is when state party leaders select delegates, establish party positions for the election, and ultimately pick their candidate for president.
In a caucus, voters must be eligible to vote and need to be affiliated with a political party. Voters must go to their designated precinct in order to cast their nomination, rather than simply filling out an absentee ballot. In order for a candidate to become viable for nomination, they must achieve 15 percent of the vote. If they do not, the voters must realign to another candidate. The winner of the caucus is the candidate that gains the most delegates. If a candidate wins 35 percent of the vote, they gain 35 percent of delegates available in that state.
Currently, there are six states that still prefer to use a caucus over a primary – Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The Iowa Caucus is the most prominent because it is the first state to partake in the presidential nomination process. It is often a good predictor of who the party’s nominee will wind up being.
How Primary Elections Work
A primary is a preliminary election for who voters want to see be their party’s nominee for president. Unlike in a caucus, voters in an open primary do not have to be affiliated with a specific party to vote. In Texas for example, a Democrat voter does not have to choose a Democratic Party candidate as their nominee. Conversely, in a closed primary, only registered voters in a specific party can vote for that party’s nominee. In Pennsylvania, only a registered democrat voter can select a Democrat candidate as their nominee.
Primaries originated during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s in which there was a movement to increase the participation of voters in the party nomination process. The consensus was that primaries would lead to a more transparent voting process and that the nominee would be less corrupt than if that nominee came from the caucus system.
The first primary traditionally occurs in New Hampshire around the same time as the Iowa Caucus. On Super Tuesday in March, over 20 primaries are held to determine a party’s nominee. Similar to the winners of a state caucus, the winner of a state primary receives the most delegates.
How the Electoral College Came About
The founding fathers, when not battling chronic lice and the common cold, met numerous times to deliberate the framework of this strange and revolutionary experiment known as the United States of America. The men who built America decided on a compromise between popular vote and congressional vote by establishing the Electoral College.
What are the Origins of the Electoral College?
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates met to establish the process for electing a president. A majority of committee members agreed that an Electoral College would protect future elections from being decided by a small group of Congressman. The committee also agreed on the Three-Fifths Compromise. At the time that delegates argued in favor of the Electoral College, southern delegates were concerned that they would be allotted much less representation than their northern counterparts.
In states like South Carolina where slaves made up over 60 percent of the population, delegates feared the total population would not reflect this large number of slaves. As difficult as it is to imagine in our present society, slaves, of which the majority were African descendants, were legal property, not human beings. Therefore, they would not be counted towards a state’s representation. In a shameful act, the committee determined that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
On September 6th 1787, the committee approved the Electoral College motion. The number of electors each state would have is directly proportional to how many representatives and senators they have in Congress. For instance, California has 53 representatives and two senators, therefore they have a total of 55 electoral votes.
The total electoral votes for New Jersey is 14 because there are 12 representatives and two senators. It is important to note that the election for president and vice-president is the only time when the Electoral College is used as the deciding factor. In every other election, only the popular vote is counted.
How Does the Electoral College Process Work?
Electors are selected on a state-by-state basis. There are very few provisions that would prevent someone from becoming an elector. Electors cannot be a current Representative or Senator at the federal or state level, someone who holds an Office of Trust or Profit, and anyone who committed a treasonous act against the U.S. or prompted an insurrection is also barred from serving as an elector. In most cases, state political parties choose citizens to be electors in recognition for an outstanding achievement or years of service to the party. The elector selection process is implemented in two parts.
First: When the two presidential candidates are finally nominated, state Democrats and Republicans nominate electors who will then vote for their respective presidential candidate at the meeting of electors on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
Next: On election day, which resides on the first Tuesday of November every four years, electors are still considered part of the general election. The designated electors can vote as individuals for their preferred presidential candidate. In 48 out of 50 states, when voters determine who they think should be president, they are actually voting to select their state’s electors. The candidate that receives the most votes has their slate of nominated electors become their state’s official electors. The first candidate to win 270 votes out of the 538 up for grabs, wins the election.
In Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes can actually go to both candidates. Both states have a total of three electoral votes, but in some cases, not all three votes have gone to the same candidate. In a process known as proportional distribution of electors, the state winner receives two electoral votes, and the winner of the congressional districts receives one vote. In a situation where one candidate wins the state vote, but does not win as many congressional districts as the other candidate, the vote is split.
If a candidate does not win a majority of Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives must elect the president. The president-elect is determined from the three candidates who received the most Electoral College votes. The Senate then elects the vice president from the remaining two candidates. This outcome has only occurred once in U.S. election history when the House elected John Quincy Adams president in 1824.
What’s the Purpose of the Electoral College?
To the untrained eye, the Electoral College seems like a very undemocratic process. After all, winning the popular vote does not actually mean a candidate will win the election. In fact, the winner of the presidential election has failed to win the popular vote five times in American history – 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.
The advent of the Electoral College comes from the framers deep distrust of direct democracy. On one hand, they did not want Congress to elect the president because there was the potential for corruption and bribery to arise. Furthermore, a populist candidate could easily appeal to voters wants with little to no intention of ever following through on his/her campaign promises.
Finally, the Electoral College limits states with large populations from holding too much power. If the president was elected based on a popular vote, candidates would only need to campaign in states like California, Texas, Florida, and New York. The lesser populated states would have little to no say in the election, a very undemocratic system.
The National Popular Vote (NPV) Movement
Ultimately, the only question that matters in U.S. presidential elections is who can reach the 270 vote threshold to win the Electoral College majority and thus, the White House. However, the way the Electoral College operates has long been controversial in American politics, as the winner of the national popular vote has not always necessarily won the Electoral College and, ultimately, the presidency.
For example, Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but lost the presidency due to George W. Bush’s narrow victory in Florida. Hillary Clinton also won the popular vote in the 2016 election, but lost the White House to Donald Trump due to his victories in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which allowed him to win the Electoral College majority for the presidency.
These recent examples have birthed a national popular vote movement, in which some states have agreed to award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in the election.
Currently, these states include:
- New Jersey
- Washington, D.C.
- Rhode Island
- New York
- New Mexico
The origins of the national popular vote movement lie in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement of the above states and the District of Columbia that aims to ensure that the candidate who receives the most votes is elected president and would go into effect when it could guarantee that outcome. As of 2020, these states combine for 196 electoral votes, 73% of the 270 votes needed to come into legal force and impact the results of the election. However, controversies remain about how and if the pact can be legally implemented, while opponents have raised a number of questions about it’s impact on the American democratic process.
The compact was drafted in January 2006, just a few years after the controversial 2000 election. The reasoning behind the pact is to ensure that the votes of people all across the United States are counted, the power of a small handful of influential swing states is limited, and turnout is hopefully increased. Critics, however, charge that a national popular vote would upend the wishes of the founding fathers, interfere with the rights of individual states to set election laws and regulations as they choose, tip the balance unfairly towards heavily-populated states and cities, and potentially increase voter fraud.
However, certain legal issues have also arisen concerning the validity of the pact. The compact may need the official approval of the U.S. Congress due to the Compact Clause of the Constitution, which forbids states from entering into a formal agreement with another state without Congress’ consent. There’s also been some debate about how the compact would effect the role of state plenary powers, which give them the authority to appoint electors as they see fit, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, posing more legal challenges to its viability.
Ultimately, the impact of the national popular vote movement remains to be seen. With the 2020 election coming soon, voters will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on its outcome and whether the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has any impact on who is sworn in as president on January 20, 2021.