The Electoral College is a body of 538 Americans elected by the voters on a state-by-state basis to cast the official ballots for president and vice president. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, “The Electoral College was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote.”

It must be acknowledged right off the bat that, as far as public opinion goes, the Electoral College isn’t exactly one of the Founding Fathers’ Greatest Hits. We’ll explore pros and cons in future posts. For now, let’s talk basics.

We can use my state of Minnesota as an example. On November 4, 2008, Jane Q. Voter of Duluth goes to the school on the corner to vote for president and vice president. She casts her ballot—let’s say for Barack Obama. She has registered her choice. From her point of view, the process seems to be over.

But under the U.S. Constitution, there’s more to the story. Rather than having directly voted for Obama, she has actually voted for a slate of 10 electors pledged to Obama. Each party in Minnesota proposes a separate 10-person slate—we Democrats have our 10 (of which I’m one), the Republicans name their 10, and other parties and independent candidates each have elector slates as well. The voters on November 4, including our Jane, decide which of these slates will be seated as the actual electors. These electors, in turn, meet at the Minnesota Capitol on December 15 to formally cast the state’s ballots (electoral votes) for president and vice president.

In most states, the candidate who wins the most popular votes gets all the electors from that state, even if other candidate(s) had considerable support. This “winner-take-all” practice is why TV electoral maps always show entire states as “red” (Republican) or “blue” (Democratic), even though every “red” state has a substantial number of Democrats and vice versa. It’s also why presidential campaign strategy is based not on blanketing a national multitude of voters, but rather on appealing to voters by state in order to nail a 270-electoral-vote majority.

The number of electoral votes allocated to a state is equal to that state’s total representation in the U.S. House (which varies from state to state based on population) and the Senate (always 2 per state). The range goes from mammoth California (55 electoral votes), to medium-sized states like Wisconsin (10) and Kentucky (8), to bite-sized Wyoming (3).

While we tend to think of electoral votes in the abstract, each elector is in fact an actual person. Generally, they’re typical citizens like you and me—unless you’re a Congressperson or some other species of federal officeholder, in which case you can’t be an elector so I probably shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Awk-ward…!

What is distinctive about most electors is that they’re highly active in politics, and are chosen largely because of their service and loyalty to their respective parties. That may sound like inside baseball, but that party-loyalty element virtually ensures that when voters in, say, Utah vote Republican, the electors won’t turn around and vote for the Democrat.

(I say virtually because there have been rare cases when electors didn’t vote the way they had pledged. They’re called faithless electors, and we most certainly will be discussing them.)

We’ve talked about the what. Next time, we’ll talk about why we do it this way. Stay tuned.

[Edited 8/17/08 to clarify that each party nominates a separate slate of 10 electors.]

2 thoughts on “Electoral College 101

  1. Still don’t understand. If most of a state votes Democrat surely only the electoral representatives who are Democrat will vote in December. In which case why not just count the number of Democrat representatives? Also,if they don’t vote until December how come Obama has already been declared President?

  2. Hi Catherine,

    What you’re suggesting in your first question is exactly what we do. When you see the totals of “blue” and “red” electoral votes displayed, they’re simply tallying up the Democratic and Republican electors on the assumption they’ll vote for Obama and McCain, respectively.

    To your second question, Barack Obama has been declared president-elect because he clearly won the majority of electoral votes (at least 365 out of 538). If it had been close, as it was between Bush and Gore, we might still be hanging on the results from Missouri (as we were stuck on Florida in 2000) before either candidate could be called “president-elect.”

    Since that isn’t the case, the world moves forward knowing that the December 15 vote is just a formality.

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