Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution outlines the role of the Executive Branch. There we find the Electoral College. When we vote for President we select electors who meet to elect the President.
This allows for the unlikely possibility that the majority of Americans may vote for one candidate while the electors may choose another candidate. But this is exactly what happened in 2000 and 2016. Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to President George W. Bush in the electoral college in 2000. In 2016 Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college.
Because this happened twice in 16 years, and both times sent a Republican to the White House, some are calling for the end of the electoral college and electing the President on a straight popular vote. Proponents of eliminating the electoral college argue that this unfairly benefits states with smaller populations. States send electors to the electoral college based on the number of Representatives plus Senators. For example New York sends 29 electors because they have 27 members of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators. South Dakota sends 3 electors as they have 1 member of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators. My thanks to Linda Monk in her excellent book The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution. She broke down the data and showed that one elector in South Dakota represents 232,000 people while in New York one elector represents 550,000 people.
Candidates for President know this, and the electoral college drives much of where they decide to campaign. I can’t tell you how many of my fellow Californians complain that candidates ignore us, except when they need to fundraise. California sends 55 electors, but it’s a safe state for Democrats and the Republicans see no point in campaigning here. Likewise, Texas sends 38 electors but it’s a “safe” Republican state.
So what states do the candidates care about? That’s actually more complicated than it sounds.
Each Presidential election comprises two parts: getting the nomination and winning the election. And the strategies are different. Most states select their nominees through primaries and they hold both Democratic and Republican primaries on the same day. With the exception of a sitting President running for reelection, most primaries begin with several candidates and the field winnows with each primary. All candidates know that winning early primaries gives them an advantage in popularity and fundraising. This works well for the first three states who hold primaries: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
But once the nominees are chosen, the calculation changes. Now the candidates turn to states with relatively large populations where the numbers of Republicans and Democrats are relatively close: Ohio (18 electors), Florida (29), Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10). These five states send only 93 electors out of 538 but they make the difference between victory and defeat.
So what happens if our President was elected only the popular vote? Defenders of the electoral college argue that the candidates would focus only on large population centers: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston (my city of San Diego ranks 8th). Rural areas would be totally ignored.
I’m not certain that’s true. Our campaigns have become so nationalized that all of us see the candidates wherever they are. And speaking for myself, I’m just as happy not to have candidates creating havoc and gridlock when I’m trying to get to work.
I recognize that I would be bombarded with campaign mailers, but does it really matter if my recycling bin is filled at the expense of a recycling bin in Ohio?
And yes, at the end the day we can only eliminate the electoral college by amending the Constitution. It’s a long process. A bill would have to be introduced to Congress and get a 2/3 majority in both houses. Then it goes to the states where 3/4 of the state legislatures would have to approve. Of our 50 states, 38 would have to approve it, meaning that 13 states could block it.
Just some thoughts on a Wednesday evening.