One person, one vote? Not exactly

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 11/19/2012, 11:58 a.m.
President Barack Obama won the popular vote, but it was the Electoral College that really...
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President Barack Obama won the popular vote, but it was the Electoral College that really put him back in the Oval Office.

Every four years, on the first Tuesday in November, millions of Americans head to the polls to elect the nation's next president. The individual votes cast are called "popular" votes, but that's not how the race is decided. The Electoral College was established in Article II of the Constitution and was amended by the 12th Amendment in 1804. It was created as a compromise for the presidential election process because some politicians believed that a purely popular election was too reckless and would give too much power to more heavily populated parts of the country. Others were not in favor of having Congress make the final decision.

How it works is that after the popular votes in a state are counted and a winner is determined, that state's "elected" will then cast their votes for that candidate. This whole notion of voting and then having some unknown person vote in favor of your candidate might just make you feel like your one vote doesn't count, but it does. Electoral votes were allocated to each state for the 2012 presidential election based on the 2010 Census and are effective for the forthcoming 2016 and 2020 elections.

Each state gets a number of electors equal to its number of members in the House of Representatives, plus one for each of its two senators. At present, there are 538 electors nationwide, with 270 votes being the majority needed to win. If neither candidate gets the 270 majority votes, then, as outlined in the 12th Amendment, the election is decided by the House of Representatives.

While the state's "electors" pledge to vote for the candidate of the party that chose them, they don't always do it. These are called "faithless electors." Electors in 27 states are bound by law to vote faithfully, while those in 24 states, including New York, are not.

Just who are these "electors" and how are they chosen? There's no set-in-stone process for choosing electors and the process varies from state to state. Electors are nominated at their individual state party conventions or by a central committee. They are usually chosen in recognition for dedicated service to their party. An elector cannot be a senator or representative. The 14th Amendment provides that state officials are disqualified from being electors if they have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States or if they have given aid and comfort to its enemies.

Some states have higher numbers of Electoral College votes than others, and candidates fight extra hard to win these crucial states. A candidate could lose 39 states but still win the presidency by winning the electoral college votes in 11 of these 12 states:

  • North Carolina (15)
  • New York (29)
  • Texas (38)
  • Florida (29)
  • Pennsylvania (20)
  • California (55)
  • New Jersey (14)
  • Georgia (16)
  • Virginia (13)
  • Illinois (20)
  • Ohio (18)
  • Michigan (16)

Swing states are also critical in an election. These are states where the vote could go to either party, having a critical effect on the outcome of the election. The current swing states are: