The existence and duties of the presidential electors and the electoral college are so little known today that most American voters believe that they are voting directly for a president and vice president on election day. The electors may be well-known people, such as governors, state legislators, or other state and local officials, but they generally do not receive public recognition as electors, and, in most states, the names of individual electors do not appear anywhere on the ballot, where only those of the candidates for president and vice president appear, usually prefaced by the words “electors for.” Electoral votes are commonly referred to as having “been awarded” to the winning candidate, as if no human beings were involved in the process.
he Electoral College is a process, included in the Constitution as a compromise between electing the president by a vote in Congress and by a popular vote of qualified citizens. The process has three parts: the selection of the electors, the meeting of the electors where they vote for president and vice president, and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.
Electoral votes are allocated among the states based on the Census. Every state is allocated two votes for its senators in the U.S. Senate, plus a number of votes equal to the number of its members in the US House of Representatives. Under the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution, the District of Columbia is allocated three electors and treated like a state for purposes of the Electoral College. Effective for the 2020 presidential elections, the total number of electoral votes is 538 and the majority needed to elect is 270.
The electors are generally chosen by the candidate’s political party, but state laws vary on how the electors are selected. Aside from Members of Congress, and persons holding offices of “trust or profit” under the Constitution, anyone may serve as an elector. There is no constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states. Electors can be bound by state law or by pledges to political parties. Most states have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the winning presidential candidate. Maine and Nebraska each have a variation of “proportional representation.”
The Electoral College as originally devised was a failure by 1800. Amendments and the role of political parties have over time produced a patchwork version that has muddled along, but hardly represents any founding father’s vision of electors as independent actors, weighing the merits of competing presidential candidates. The irony today is that the founders’ original intent was to forestall the “elevation of someone unworthy” through a purely popular national vote.
It may be argued that the current process of primaries and the Electoral College do serve a purpose by narrowing the field of potential candidates and making sure any successful candidate is popular across different parts of the country, but there is certainly room for improvement. The climate today would seem to favor the National Popular Vote bill that would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. New Jersey is one of 11 states with 165 electoral votes that has already signed this bill into law and it will take effect when enacted by states with 105 more electoral votes. Working through national organizations such as NCJW to spread the word and encourage action in more states, each of us can still make a difference. For details go to nationalpopularvote.com.
—Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair