Episode 4 in a series “Things that are the way they are because of constraints that no longer apply” (or: why we don’t change processes we have invested in that don’t make sense any more)
A US presidential election year is a wondrous thing. There are few places around the world where the campaign for head of state begins in earnest 18 months before the winner will take office. We are now in the home straight, with the final Presidential debate behind us, and election day coming up in 3 weeks, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (this year, that’s November 8th). And as with every election cycle, much time will be spent explaining the electoral college. This great American institution is at the heart of how America elects its President. Every 4 years, there are calls to reform it, to move to a different system, and yet it persists. What is it, where did it come from, and why does it cause so much controversy?
In the US, people do not vote for the President directly in November. Instead, they vote for electors – people who represent the state in voting for the President. A state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its number of senators (2) and its number of US representatives (this varies based on population). Sparsely populated states like Alaska and Montana get 3 electoral votes, while California gets 55. In total, there are 538 electors, and a majority of 270 electoral votes is needed to secure the presidency. What happens if the candidates fail to get a majority of the electors is outside the scope of this blog post, and in these days of a two party system, it is very unlikely (although not impossible).
State parties nominate elector lists before the election, and on election day, voters vote for the elector slate corresponding to their preferred candidate. Electoral votes can be awarded differently from state to state. In Nebraska, for example, there are 2 statewide electors for the winner of the statewide vote, and one elector for each congressional district, while in most states, the elector lists are chosen on a winner take all basis. After the election, the votes are counted in the local county, and sent to the state secretary for certification.
Once the election results are certified (which can take up to a month), the electors meet in their state in mid December to record their votes for president and vice president. Most states (but not all!) have laws restricting who electors are allowed to vote for, making this mostly a ceremonial position. The votes are then sent to the US senate and the national archivist for tabulation, and the votes are then cross referenced before being sent to a joint session of Congress in early January. Congress counts the electoral votes and declares the winner in the presidency. Two weeks later, the new President takes office (those 2 weeks are to allow for the process where no-one gets a majority in the electoral college).
Because it is possible to win heavily in some states with few electoral votes, and lose narrowly in others with a lot of electoral votes, it is possible to win the presidency without having a majority of Americans vote for you (as George W. Bush did in 2000). In modern elections, the electoral college can result in a huge difference of attention between “safe” states, and “swing” states – the vast majority of campaigning is done in only a dozen or so states, while states like Texas and Massachusetts do not get as much attention.
Why did the founding fathers of the US come up with such a convoluted system? Why not have people vote for the President directly, and have the counts of the states tabulated directly, without the pomp and ceremony of the electoral college vote?
First, think back to 1787, when the US constitution was written. The founders of the state had an interesting set of principles and constraints they wanted to uphold:
- Big states should not be able to dominate small states
- Similarly, small states should not be able to dominate big states
- No political parties existed (and the founding fathers hoped it would stay that way)
- Added 2016-10-21: Different states wanted to give a vote to different groups of people (and states with slavery wanted slaves to count in the population)
- In the interests of having presidents who represented all of the states, candidates should have support outside their own state – in an era where running a national campaign was impractical
- There was a logistical issue of finding out what happened on election day and determining the winner
To satisfy these constraints, a system was chosen which ensured that small states had a proportionally bigger say (by giving an electoral vote for each Senator), but more populous states still have a bigger say (by getting an electoral vote for each congressman). In the first elections, electors voted for 2 candidates, of which only one could be from their state, meaning that winning candidates had support from outside their state. The President was the person who got the most electoral votes, and the vice president was the candidate who came second – even if (as was the case with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) they were not in the same party. It also created the possibility (as happened with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr) that a vice presidential candidate could get the same number of electoral votes as the presidential candidate, resulting in Congress deciding who would be president. The modern electoral college was created with the 12th amendment to the US constitution in 1803.
Another criticism of direct voting is that populist demagogues could be elected by the people, but electors (being of the political classes) could be expected to be better informed, and make better decisions, about who to vote for. Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist #68 that: “It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” These days, most states have laws which require their electors to vote in accordance with the will of the electorate, so that original goal is now mostly obsolete.
A big part of the reason for having over two months between the election and the president taking office (and prior to 1934, it was 4 months) is, in part, due to the size of the colonial USA. The administrative unit for counting, the county, was defined so that every citizen could get to the county courthouse and home in a day’s ride – and after an appropriate amount of time to count the ballots, the results were sent to the state capital for certification, which could take up to 4 days in some states like Kentucky or New York. And then the electors needed to be notified, and attend the official elector count in the state capital. And then the results needed to be sent to Washington, which could take up to 2 weeks, and Congress (which was also having elections) needed to meet to ratify the results. All of these things took time, amplified by the fact that travel happened on horseback.
So at least in part, the electoral college system is based on how long, logistically, it took to bring the results to Washington and have Congress ratify them. The inauguration used to be on March 4th, because that was how long it took for the process to run its course. It was not until 1934 and the 20th amendment to the constitution that the date was moved to January.
Incidentally, two other constitutionally set constraints for election day are also based on constraints that no longer apply. Elections happen on a Tuesday, because of the need not to interfere with two key events: sabbath (Sunday) and market (Wednesday). And the elections were held in November primarily so as not to interfere with harvest. These dates and reasoning, set in stone in 1845, persist today.