The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Reviewing the Electoral College

  • Electoral College's vote, not popular votes, determine outcome of election
  • Votes not officially counted until more than a month after election
  • Groups call for Electoral College reform

When voters head to the polls this Tuesday, many won't immediately realize that the process of electing a new president of the United States is far from over.

The Nov. 4 general election is only the beginning of the process that centers on the Electoral College, whose votes determine the winner of the presidential race.

State electors don't meet until Dec. 15 and electoral votes have to be submitted by Dec. 24. However, the official statement on who the next president is won't be made until Jan. 6, when the votes are finally counted in Congress.

According to Julia Azari, assistant professor of political science, the electoral college was not created for the reason most people think.

"It was a compromise for election by the people or election by legislature," Azari said. "Having the president elected by the legislature doesn't prove a very effective check on the legislature, but there was some skepticism of democracy and the ability of people to make an educated choice."

She said the founders assumed a popular vote system would lead to people just voting for names they recognized as from their state.

The current electoral process was established in 1804 with the addition of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. While the exact wording of the amendment did not specifically call for the creation of an "electoral college," it did outline the process that is currently used.

Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has representatives in the House. How those votes are distributed is up to the state, based on its popular vote.

All but two states use a winner-take-all system, in which all of those states' electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote within the state. Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system, where votes are divided between candidates based on what proportion of the state's votes they received.

A presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the election. If that minimum is not met, the House of Representatives elects whoever received the most electoral votes.

In recent years, close elections have led many voters to question just how much their vote really counts in the race for president.

The predominantly winner-take-all system has led to states being designated as "safe" or "battleground" states. The outcome of safe states is predictable, while the fates of battleground states are undecided until the election is held.

"Votes certainly count," said Laura Kirshner, a fellow in the presidential elections reform program for "There's just an incentive not to vote in safe states. Votes don't count the way they should because battleground votes are treated differently."

Kirshner said is a non-partisan, non-profit electoral reform organization that wants the president to be elected through a national popular vote.

Azari said the current system puts a lot of weight on undecided states.

"It sets up a strategic environment in a way I don't think the framers envisioned," Azari said. "Campaigns have taken a direction different from what the founders may have imagined. Without the electoral college it may have taken an even sharper turn."

Barry Fadem, president of National Popular Vote, a non-profit organization working toward having all states move to a proportional electoral system, said the winner-take-all system has created a situation in which only battleground states get to play a role in the presidential race.

"There's no way to justify it," Fadem said. "The American voter just cannot understand how we use a system no one understands."

National Popular Vote is working for change through state legislations because it would be too hard to get a constitutional amendment passed to eliminate the Electoral College. He said the group now has four states — Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey and Illinois &mdsah; signed on to its initiative to change to a proportional system.

Fadem said that as long as the group gets enough states that the total number of electoral votes signed on to the initiative is 270, the country will technically be on a proportional system.

Azari said any goal of a constitutional amendment to eliminate the electoral college might not be realistic.

"There are a whole lot of factors that hamper democracy, and the Electoral College might be hard to fight," she said.

Story continues below advertisement