The electoral college (1789- ), so called since 1808, is currently made up of the 538 electors who choose the US president and vice president. For over 200 years they have been meeting on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, every four years. They next meet on December 19th 2016 – next Monday. They will likely elect Donald Trump president even though he lost the popular vote by 2.08 percentage points.
The electoral college has voted for the loser of the popular vote three times before:
- 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes, who lost by 3.00%,
- 1888: Benjamin Harrison, who lost by 0.83%,
- 2000: George W. Bush, who lost by 0.51%.
Trump, Bush, Harrison and Hayes were all Republicans.
Opinions about the electoral college:
“it’s as sound as it was when that shipload of mentally defective orangutans washed ashore and designed it.”
Donald Trump in 2012:
“The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.”
Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father and washed-ashore orangutan (from Nevis):
“If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”
Each state gets as many electors as it has people in Congress, anywhere between 3 to 55. It is roughly in proportion to the number of people who live in each state.
The keyword is “roughly”. Since each state gets at least 3 electors, no matter how few people live in it, smaller states have more voting power. In California, for example, there are 677,000 people per elector while in Wyoming there are only 188,000. Since most small states have few big cities, immigrants, or people of colour, that gives Republicans a built-in advantage.
Puerto Rico has millions of people but gets no electors – because it is not a state. DC is not a state either, but through a special deal (called the Twenty-third Amendment) it gets 3 electors.
The constitution leaves it up to each state how to choose electors and how they should vote. In most cases, the party that won the popular vote in a state, no matter how narrowly, gets to choose all of that state’s electors – winner takes all, distorting the popular vote. In Nebraska and Maine the winning party in each Congressional district gets to choose an elector.
Electors meet at their state capitals. Each one writes down who they want for president and vice president. Their ballots are sent to the US Senate where they are counted.
In practice, nearly all electors vote for their party’s candidate. In 29 states they are required to do so by law. Those who do not are called faithless electors or, as they prefer to call themselves, Hamilton electors.
As Hamilton lays out in Federalist Paper #68, the electoral college is meant as a fail-safe to stop conspiracies, demagogues and especially:
“foreign powers … raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union”
and also to stop:
“any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
Hamilton electors see Donald Trump as just the sort of man the electoral college was meant to stop.
– Abagond, 2016.
Update (December 21st 2016): As it turned out, there were seven Hamilton electors, two against Trump (voting for Ron Paul and John Kasich) and five against Hillary Clinton (Bernie Sanders, Spotted Eagle and three for Colin Powell). Not enough Republican electors flipped, so Donald Trump will become the next president.
- US elections
- Donald Trump
- US geography