The Electoral College
As you learned in Chapter 2, the president and vice president are actually elected by the Electoral College. When casting a ballot for a particular candidate, voters are actually voting for a slate of electors. These electors in turn will vote for that candidate in the Electoral College.
The Electoral College system was devised for two reasons: The framers of the Constitution had feared direct democracy (they believed that a college of dispassionate citizens were better suited than the masses to select a president), and they wanted to protect the interests of smaller states and rural areas.
The Electoral College is composed of 538 members — equivalent to 100 senators, 435 House members, and 3 representatives from the District of Columbia. Each state's number of electors equals their number of representatives and senators. Thus, California has the most electors with 54, followed by New York (33), Texas (32), Florida (25), and Pennsylvania (23). Except for Maine and Nebraska, the Electoral College is a winner-take-all system, meaning whoever carries the state — regardless of the margin — receives all of the state's Electoral College votes.
Calls to Reform
As we learned in 2000, regardless of the popular vote tally (President George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a half million votes), the magic number is 270 electoral votes. The 25 electoral votes accorded President George W. Bush from his several-hundred-vote victory in Florida gave him a total of 271 to Al Gore's 267. Following the 2000 election, there was some discussion about eliminating the Electoral College and replacing it with direct voting. Were that to happen, however, chances are the candidates would focus on large population centers such as New York, California, Florida, and Texas, and ignore the interests of rural and sparsely populated areas.
How many times has a president been elected without winning the popular vote?
This has occurred four times. The first was John Adams in 1824, followed by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000. Adams, Hayes, and Harrison all were unable to win a second term.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter proposed a constitutional amendment that would do just that, but the amendment failed to win a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Small-state senators had also rebuffed a measure to eliminate the Electoral College in 1969. The major parties oppose eliminating the Electoral College because it would give more influence to third-party candidates, who under the current system stand almost no chance of winning any electoral votes.
Who Are the Electors?
It's important to keep in mind that the candidates choose their own slate of electors — the Republican candidate has his set of electors, and the Democrat candidate has a different set of electors. State rules determine how these electors are chosen. The Constitution does not require that the electors cast their ballots for their pledged candidate in the Electoral College. However, since the candidates themselves choose their slate of electors, it's extremely unlikely that any elector would vote for someone other than his pledged candidate. During the 2000 presidential recount, the media speculated one or two Bush electors might switch their votes for Al Gore during the Electoral College, an absurd notion.