Thanks Al, But Next Time Invent the Internet

Mark Baisley
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Posted: Sep 02, 2012 12:01 AM
Former Vice President Al Gore recently expressed his newly developed opinion that the United States should dispense with the Electoral College formula for choosing the President and Vice President.  Of course, this complex and enduring practice gets beat up every four years.  It seems a bit convoluted, especially when considering that Americans will someday be able to cast their votes on a mobile device.

The Electoral College is very deliberately not a popular-vote method; that being one vote counted for every person voting.  Rather, it comes from a place of time-honored wisdom that receives a certain validation whenever someone with the intellectual stature of Al Gore kicks it around.

The purpose in creating an electoral college was to give assurance to the smaller states signing up for the union that they would not be overwhelmed by the larger states.  The practice continues to temper the effect of more populous cultures imposing their values onto the less populated states.

On election day, November 6, 2012, a total of 538 electoral votes will be cast for President and Vice President together.  That number represents the total number of United States Senators and United States Representatives (Congress) plus three votes to represent the residents of Washington, D.C.  So to win the Presidency, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will need at least 270 electoral votes.

While each state is represented by exactly two U.S. Senators, the number of U.S. Representatives is set at a total of 435.  Every ten years, the Census determines how many of those Representatives are allocated to each state.  No state is to have less than one U.S. Representative.

So with two Senators and at least one Representative, no state will cast less than three electoral votes in the presidential election.  There are seven states who hold that distinction; Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.  California is the heaviest elector with 55, nearly 50% higher than second-position Texas at 38.  To see the number of electors allocated for all states, see Electoral College Allocation.

Washington, D.C. also weighs in with three electoral votes.  It will likely always have just three votes.  The Twenty-Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants the residents of Washington, D.C. with electors “equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State.”

Recognizing the U.S. Senators in the electoral college evens things out a bit among the states.  But the winner-take-all vote from each state is what really makes the difference in the outcome.  In 48 states, the nominee with the highest number of popular votes receives all of that state’s electoral votes in a presidential contest.  As this is determined by the constitutions of individual states, there are two exceptions to the winner-take-all rule.  Maine and Nebraska each have a variation of “proportional representation” where the electoral votes can be split among the presidential nominees.

On four occasions in American history, the nominee who received the most popular votes lost the election.  The most recent of these was Al Gore’s narrow loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election.  Of course, if the condition never arose, this constitutional clause would be a moot concept.

In the case of a tie, where each nominee were to receive 269 electoral votes, the new members of the House of Representatives choose the President while the new members of the Senate choose the Vice President.  Under a different set of rules in the 1800 election, it took thirty-six votes within the House of Representatives to finally arrive at Thomas Jefferson as the nation’s third President.  Albeit unlikely, a tie in the electoral college vote is a mathematical possibility this November, even when assuming that the red and blue states play out as predicted.

If you wish to play with your own outcome predictions, see the impressive website www.270towin.com.  This site provides an interactive map of the fifty states, showing the distribution of electors and a running count for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  The default map begins with 39 states presumed to be already predictably red for Republican and blue for Democrat.  The default electoral counts are a competitively even 201 electors for Obama and 191 for Romney. 

For comparison, the 270towin website also offers historical maps of previous presidential elections.  For Republicans who could use some encouragement, select Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980.

While some updates to America’s tried and true election system may be worth considering, the elaborate system given us by the Founders does prevent Wyoming from being controlled by California.  So, thanks, Al.  But, I recommend that you stick with more practical inventions, like the Internet.