How to win an election: Understanding the Electoral College

Skye McEowen

As the election drew to be nearly neck and neck, Americans watched as electoral votes slowly ticked upwards to 270.

Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2000. Voters around the country flocked to their precincts to cast their vote for the new president of the new millennium. As the night continued, news outlets covered the progress of the election as votes were being counted and declared in each precinct, one by one.

“A big call to make, CNN announces that we call Florida in the Al Gore column,” said CNN news anchor Judy Woodruff, the screen on the newscast taken over by a picture of then Democratic candidate Al Gore, with “WINNER” above.

The newscast didn’t end there, as CNN anchors called for Al Gore to be moved back to the “Too Close to Call Column.” Nearing 10 p.m. and with 25 votes hanging in the balance, they would declare either Bush or Gore the winner.

Past 4 a.m., Gore Campaign Chairman Bill Daley addresses the cheering crowd of supporters after CNN declared Bush the official winner, declaring the campaign will continue until the recount of the Florida votes are official.

The Electoral College is a system that dates more than 200 years, back to the very founding of the United States. There are 538 total electors: the sum of 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. The remaining three comes from the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, which gives the District of Columbia the same amount of electoral votes as the least populous state.

A state could go blue, then in December, the Democratic electors cast their votes in the state’s capitol. In Washington D.C., the official electoral votes for the candidate is counted in January.

Then, and only then, has the country officially elected the next president of the United States.

“It is certainly a strange and unique system, and it’s always worth remembering that it was something that was part of the compromise between competing interests,” associate professor for political science Michael Ensley said last spring.

In every presidential election, each state has a set amount of electoral votes, or electorates, proportional to the state’s population and their number of seats in Congress.

“If I were to describe how it functions and works to someone unfamiliar with it, one way you could sort of phrase it is: It’s actually 50 or 51 separate elections, if you count Washington D.C., that the candidates sort of run,” Ensley said.

The Electoral College in its original form spawned from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, with the intention that the system would discourage misrepresentation, corruption and even extremism.

“And so it was a system that was meant to (prevent) change too rapidly, too fast. That might bug people. That was exactly what the founders intended: to have a system that was not prone to rapid, extreme sort of change,” Ensley said.

Ryan Claassen, an associate professor for political science, said an early flaw led to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ending up in the White House together.

“They hated each other, and it was because of the way the electors were casting votes. And so, by constitutional amendment, they changed that so electors cast a separate ballot for president and vice president. So that someone who was intending to be a vice president doesn’t end up as a president,” Claassen added.

After a state selects in November who their winning candidate is, depending on that state’s laws, the electors chosen then could possibly choose the other’s party candidate come January in D.C., meaning the electoral votes actually go to the other candidate. Twenty-seven states have laws in place that demand the elector’s vote for their party’s candidate. There is no national law saying electors must vote for a certain candidate, or saying one needs the majority popular vote to win.

“In our history, that’s only happened four times, and I don’t have the dates of those. But I can tell you the most recent one was 2000,” Claassen said.

Those dates were 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000. In the 2000 election, Republican Bush ran and won by a slim margin against Democrat Gore in the electoral votes. Bush ended up with 271, while Gore had 266.

Both Ensley and Claassen were in graduate school at the time, watching the suddenly bizarre process unfold. From a close election ending near 8 p.m., to watching the fatigued anchors dissect the recount process in Florida at 5 a.m. as the margin between the two was by a mere few hundred votes, correspondents were witnessing campaign managers pushing on as they addressed the impatient crowds in the middle of the night, going on dawn. Bush won the presidency with 47.87 percent of the popular vote. Gore led with 48.38 percent.

But because of the Electoral College and the 270-to-win rule, Bush was declared the winner with Florida’s votes.

“I think people learned a lot about the Electoral College while that whole thing was unfolding,” Claassen said. “And there was a lot of criticism in the electoral college after the election because people were upset about the different results. But it all kind of died down, and the institution has survived unscathed.”

With these instances, should the current system undergo some change? Both Ensley and Claassen said it comes down to campaigning strategy as one factor. Furthermore, the significance of each state politically may change once their electoral votes no longer come into play, meaning they may not matter anymore.

“It may be a good thing, and it could also in some ways be something that’s a little bit worse, or different,” Ensley said. “Then someone starts complaining about the Electoral College; again, always think about (how) it’s going to change how they behave as candidates … Even change how the parties work and ultimately how the parties (are) structured in ways that are not obvious. Also, to remember that this is how it was designed to work.”

As seen in 2000, with news anchors and citizens who got ready for a long fight ahead in Florida and the Supreme Court.

“And folks, in the year 2004, please make up your minds a little more conclusively,” said CNN news anchor Jeff Greenfield, met with laughter in the station. “Because I think we can’t take another election like this one.”

From a voter, to a precinct, to a state and to a country; an election is everything but simple with the Electoral College, a system nearly as old as the country it exercises democracy in.

Skye McEowen is managing editor, contact her at [email protected].