This news may or may not shock some readers, but one can say without fear of contradiction that no one voted for president in last week’s election. Although the candidates’ names were on the ballot, we did not vote for them. The smaller print was the key to this apparent dichotomy; therein, we saw that we were voting for electors for the different candidates, albeit with the candidates’ names there in larger print. That situation describes the Electoral College, established and prescribed by Article l of the United States Constitution.
The members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were concerned that the method of selecting the president be in accord with the principles of republican government, insulating the selection from the fear of mob rule and preserving the authority and rights of the smaller states. The Founders left to the individual states the manner of electing their delegates to the College, which meets in the capital of each state on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December.
In 48 states and the District of Columbia, the process is winner-takes-all. Maine and Nebraska follow a different format, apportioning the electoral votes according to the winner of each congressional district. Nebraska is also the only state with a unicameral legislature—that is, having only one chamber in the legislature. An argument exists for proportional representation on the basis that a congressional district might vote overwhelmingly for one candidate, but if other districts in the state vote for another candidate, the electoral vote does not reflect the will of the voters in that one district.
Each state’s number of votes in the College is determined by its number of congressional districts and its two senators; thus in Virginia, we have 13 votes, one for each district plus two for the senators. Every 10 years, after the U. S. Census—also mandated by the Constitution—the distribution of the congressional districts is reapportioned to equalize the representation across the nation. States that have gained in population since the previous census will get more districts accordingly, and those that have declined will lose seats. After the reapportionment has been ascertained, the legislature of each state will draw the new congressional boundaries.
Amendment One on the Virginia ballot this year was an effort to reduce the politicization of the process by giving the people an opportunity to support an independent commission that would draw congressional lines based more on homogeneity of voters’ geography and economy than on putting together voters with nothing in common but political party affiliation. If followed as intended, congressional races could become more competitive for both parties.
The Electoral College is a major part of the system of checks and balances, designed to give everyone a fair say in how the government works. One of its drawbacks comes about on those rare occasions when “faithless electors” disregard the will of the people as expressed in the popular vote, and then proceed to cast their ballots for a candidate other than the one elected by their district or state. The most notable modern example of that breach came in 1960 when Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia received 15 electoral votes while not being on the ballot in any state. Those votes, from Alabama and Mississippi and Oklahoma, were in protest against the candidacies of both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
The total number of electors comes from the number of congressional districts, 435, with 100 more for the number of senators, based on the number of states. The extra three votes come from the District of Columbia, which did not have the vote until 1964 with the ratification of the amendment giving District voters the presidential vote, but the amendment specified that the District’s number of electors could not exceed those of the smallest state.
The end result of this process is that the election still has a month to go—but, thankfully, this time without all the signs and ads.