In light of recent talk in the news about the electoral college breaking ranks and changing their votes. On Monday we found out that there were some that did break ranks. One of which voting for Faith Spotted Eagle, a Native American activist. Now this year brought a record amount of “defectors” as this years two major candidates had very low approval numbers. We all know the final outcome, which is exactly what was expected, but could this have been different. Should there even be an Electoral College? In this age, couldn’t we just go with the popular vote? And why did it come to the two most unfavorable candidates?
To understand and get to the bottom of the questions, we need to first understand the Electoral College. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2-4 set up the electoral college, but most of which is changed by the 12th amendment to the Constitution. The Electoral College is a group of 538 electors who cast a ballot for The President and Vice Presidential candidates of their choosing or they are bound to vote for. The way these electors are selected differs in every state, but mostly the candidates select electors in the state and whoever gets the majority of the vote in that state has their electors appointed. Some states have part of the state split up and electors are over a certain area instead of the whole state. Most states, while not all of them, have laws where electors are bound to vote for the ticket that they were appointed for. If they do not then they get replaced by another elector. Other states give the ability of the elector to decide who to vote for, even though they are appointed by the majority candidate in their area. A simple majority of 270 electoral votes is needed to win the Presidency. If no majority is found by the Electoral College, then the House of Representatives then votes on a maximum of 3 tickets. The top 3 tickets based on amount of electoral votes received. Every States Representation only has 1 vote in this “back up” system and a simple majority of all the states selects the President.
Now was it always this way? The answer is no, it hasn’t been. There has been an Electoral College since the beginning of our Republic with the ratifying of the Constitution. But it has changed since the beginning. As stated earlier, the 12th amendment changed most of the original clauses that set up the Electoral College. And the 12th amendment lays out basically exactly how it is run today. But the 12th Amendment was not ratified until 1804, so there were a few elections before this change. The original plan had the Electoral College set up by selecting Electors in any certain manner. Those Electors would then vote for their top 2 choices for President and submit that. Then the person with the highest majority of votes would become President. If 2 people had the same number of votes and that number was a majority, then the House of Representatives then needs to vote on one of the two. If no person has a majority then the 5 highest on the list get sent to the House of Representatives, each state has 1 vote, and a majority is needed to win the Presidency. In this system, the person with the second most votes becomes the Vice President, no matter which way the president was chosen.
Why did they change the Electoral College with the 12th amendment? My personal opinion is that is was pushed by the political parties of the time, those being the Federalist, and Democratic-Republican parties. There was first a “problem” in the 1796 election when John Adams of the Federalist party was elected as the President. When the Federalist party electors voted, they voted for John Adams, and then scattered their second votes to different people. As a result Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party became the Vice President because he had the second most votes. Now the two separate parties did not like this for various reasons. People believed that people from two different parties could not work together towards a common goal, which is extremely applicable today. Then the 1800 election exposed a defect in the plan caused by partisan politics. If each member of the Electoral College followed the party’s ticket to the letter, then there would be tie between the two candidates from the most popular ticket. These were the main reasons behind the creation of the 12th amendment, and were caused by partisan politics. I feel like someone warned us about partisans, and entangling alliances.
What does the Electoral College even serve, and why don’t we just use a popular vote? The later question I can answer quickly, and that is for the smaller states. In 2016 roughly 18% of the popular vote was cast in 2 states, California and New York. That is a large amount considering that Vermont has .2% of the popular vote itself. Basically what the electoral college does is give less power to the larger states and more power to the smaller states. Now this power shift is not much, but it helps keep a balance so that a couple of states don’t have the power to decide how the rest of the states shall live. That actually answers both of those questions.
This has been a long post, and there is much more to come. For space reasons I have split this post up. This is Part 1 of a 2 part blog. Check back soon to see Part 2. Thanks for reading.
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
– George Washington