When the 2012 presidential election was over the airwaves were flooded with commentators who theorized all sequential presidential elections would boil down to just a handful of swing states being bombarded with political ads and the rest of the country largely ignored.

With all that television coverage, the subject of the Electoral College came up quite often and several of those theatrical talking heads began questioning the relevancy of the Electoral College and how it’s structured.

It wasn’t long until I got a few calls from friends, and one from my mother.  She began to ask about the Electoral College.  If I don’t have a firm grasp of the answer I won’t wade into those waters of fabrication.  She, in turn, said: “Would someone please explain the Electoral College to me!”  I then did a little research.

The Electoral College is the institution that officially elects the President of the United States every four years.  The President isn’t elected directly by the voters.  Instead, they are elected indirectly by “electors.”  Candidates for elector are nominated by their state political parties in the months prior to Election Day.  The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members of Congress to which the state is entitled.  There are 538 electors, based on there being 435 representatives and 100 senators, plus the three electors from the District of Columbia.

The United States is the only country that elects a president via an electoral college and the only one in which a candidate can become president without having obtained the highest number of popular votes.

The Electoral College has been around since 1787.  Delegates from the small states generally favored the Electoral College out of concern that the large states would otherwise control presidential elections.  A candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes, currently 270, to win the Presidency.

The results of the Electoral College map for the 2012 presidential election were Barack Obama won in 26 states and the District of Columbia to capture 332 electoral votes.  Mitt Romney won in 24 states to capture 206 electoral votes.

A result of the present functionality of the Electoral College is that the national popular vote bears no significance on determining the outcome of the election.  Since the national popular vote is irrelevant, both voters and candidates are assumed to base their campaign strategies around the existence of the Electoral College, not to maximize national popular vote totals.

Irrelevancy of national popular vote came to light in the elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000; which produced an Electoral College winner who didn’t receive the most popular votes.

It’s possible to win the election by winning eleven states and disregarding the rest of the country.  If one ticket were to take California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey that ticket would have 270 votes.              

According to criticism, the Electoral College encourages political campaigners to focus on a few so-called “swing states” while ignoring the rest of the country.  Populous states in which pre-election poll results show no clear favorite are inundated with campaign visits, saturation television advertising, get-out-the-vote efforts by party organizers and debates, while four out of five voters in the national election are ignored.  Since most states use a winner-takes-all arrangement in which the candidate with the most votes in that state receives all of the state’s electoral votes, there is a clear incentive to focus almost exclusively on only a few key undecided states.

The closest the country has ever come to abolishing the Electoral College occurred with the Bayh-Celler Constitutional amendment proposal in 1969, but it was later filibustered and died.

In all states, except Maine and Nebraska, electors are elected on a “winner-take-all” basis.  That is, all electors are pledged to the presidential candidate who wins the most votes in their state.

Maine and Nebraska use the “Congressional District Method,” selecting one elector within each congressional district by popular vote and selecting the remaining two electors by a statewide popular vote.  Under the Congressional District Method, the electoral votes are distributed based on the popular vote winner within each of the state’s congressional districts; the statewide popular vote winner receives two additional electoral votes.  The Congressional District Method can more easily be implemented than other alternatives to the winner-take-all method.  State legislation is sufficient to use that method.

I hold the notion we should mend the Electoral College with the Congressional District Method, but not end it.

Greg Allen’s column, Thinkin’ Out Loud, was published bi-monthly from 2009 to 2017.  He’s an author, a former nationally syndicated columnist and the founder of Builder of the Spirit Ministries in Jamestown, Indiana.  He can be reached at www.builderofthespirit.org.    

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