Monday, December 14th, the nation formally picks its President. A full month after the popular election, delegates to the Electoral College will gather in each of the states to vote on whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump should be President. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by the margin of three million votes, yet still lost the election since her opponent, now President Trump, won big in the Electoral College.
In most modern elections, the votes of the Electoral College fly under the radar. The candidate with the most popular votes usually wins. But in the 2000 election and the 2016 election, the candidates with the most votes did not win.
Technically when we vote for president, we vote for a slate of party officials who, if their candidate wins, have pledged to vote for that candidate at the state’s Electoral College.
The Electoral College consists of a certain number of delegates assigned to each state based on the census count of the state’s population. Each state gets delegates for each of its two U.S. Senators plus one delegate for each of its members of Congress. The District of Columbia gets three delegates too. Each Electoral College delegate represents, on average, a bit more than 600,000 people, but the system is skewed since no state can have fewer than three delegates (the smallest states have two U.S. Senators and one member of Congress).
Thus, states with the largest populations are underrepresented in the Electoral College and the smallest are overrepresented. If New York had the number of delegates that matched its portion of the nation’s population, it would have 32 delegates instead of 29. Neighboring Vermont would have one delegate instead of three.
Every four years, 538 electors from all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. cast their votes for president and vice president of the United States. A candidate needs a majority of 270 electoral votes to win each race.
The Electoral College system was created in 1787 as part of the Constitutional Convention. The support for the system came from the smaller states, which – coupled with the requirement of each state having two U.S. Senators – wanted to make sure their voices would be heard. Similarly, many states in the south feared that a direct popular vote would lessen that area’s influence, since a great deal of its population at the time was non-voting enslaved people.
Ironically, the framers created the system to help ensure that partisan politics wouldn’t dominate the country’s electoral process -- hoping that electors would choose the person running, regardless of party membership. As we have seen in recent days, it hasn’t worked out that way.
Meeting at New York’s Capitol Monday will be the state’s Electoral College delegates for the Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York’s Democratic political leaders, the Democratic heads of the state Legislature, union leaders, local Democratic leaders, and other Democratic activists.
The New York delegates will cast their votes for President-elect Joe Biden and in other state capitals delegates also will convene to cast their votes. New York, like most other states, is a “winner-take-all” electoral state, so only the delegates that have pledged to the winning candidate cast votes at that state’s Electoral College meeting.
But it is unlikely that the drama will end there.
While Biden is expected to far exceed the minimum number of Electoral College delegate votes needed to win the Presidency, there have been instances where delegates have refused to follow the will of the popular vote in their states.
These contrarian votes are cast by so-called “faithless electors” – someone who votes for someone other than their political party’s candidate. Some thirty-three states (plus the District of Columbia) require electors to vote for a pledged candidate.
New York, however, is not one of those states. Legislation to require electors to follow the popular vote was passed in the state Senate this year but stalled in the Assembly.
Given the President-elect’s substantial victory – he won the popular vote by seven million votes and is expected to garner over 300 delegates – even if there are instances of “faithless electors,” it seems highly improbable for such electors to change the outcome.
The antics of the President and his followers to overthrow the clear decision of the voters hinges now on the unfair and confusing Electoral College system. It’s long past time for the nation to once and for all fix the anachronistic and deeply flawed Electoral College.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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