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:

  • Nevada (6)
  • Colorado (9)
  • Iowa (6)
  • Wisconsin (10)
  • Ohio (18)
  • Virginia (13)
  • New Hampshire (4)
  • North Carolina (15)
  • Florida (29)

Obama won all of these except North Carolina, securing his victory.

The founders thought the Electoral College was a good plan, but things don’t always run smoothly, especially when a popular candidate loses the race, the most recent case being the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Gore received more of the popular vote but lost because of the electoral vote. That race came down to a single state, Florida, and was decided by the Supreme Court–a decision that is still racked with controversy today.

That was not the first time that a popular candidate lost the presidency because of the Electoral College. The closest presidential race ever happened in 1876, between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden received 4,285,992 individual votes to Hayes’ 4,033,768. It appeared that Tilden should have won, right? Wrong. Tilden lost by just one Electoral College vote, receiving 184 votes to Hayes’ 185 votes.

It started to go wrong when Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon each sent in two sets of election returns, leaving 22 votes in dispute. The three southern states threw out their Democratic votes. Congress stepped in, appointing an electoral commission with five representatives each from the Senate, House of Representatives and the Supreme Court. The commission had seven Democrats and seven Republicans. The fifth Supreme Court justice was a Republican who favored Tilden, but he caved to pressure from his party and switched to Hayes, giving him the win.

Democrats in Congress were furious and threatened to block the decision unless the Republicans made a few concessions, one of which was removing federal troops from the South, ending post-Civil War Reconstruction. Hayes then became president under what became known as the Compromise of 1877.

What happens if there is a tie in Electoral College votes? The decision then goes to the House of Representatives, as in 1801 in the race between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and again in 1825 in the race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Jefferson and Jackson were the respective victors.

There were no questions, however, about our recent election. The final results were overwhelmingly clear. Obama won re-election with 62,085,892 votes (50.6 percent of the popular vote) over Mitt Romney’s 58,777,012 (47.9 percent). Most importantly, Obama won the Electoral College vote by a landslide with 332 over Romney’s 206.

The process was put into place to make sure the system was fair, but it’s clearly not perfect. There are those who argue against it in favor of a purely popular vote. The main arguments against the Electoral College are:

  • Possibility of electing a president without the majority of the popular vote
  • Putting votes in the hands of “faithless electors”
  • Possibility of depressing voter turnout
  • Election not accurately reflecting the national popular will of the people
  • However, those in favor of the Electoral College argue that it:
  • Requires a distribution of popular support to be elected president
  • Protects the interests of less populated states
  • Contributes to political stability by encouraging a two-party system
  • Maintains a federal system of government and representation

Activities

  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the Electoral College and how it works.
  • Talk About It: What do you think about the Electoral College? Is it a good way to choose the most important job in the country or should it be stopped?
  • See it in Action: Select an issue that your class can vote on. Divide into an odd number of groups of various sizes. Choose a number of “electeds” to represent your group. Now vote. Count the individual votes, then count the elected. Did the popular vote and the elected votes each give the same result?
  • Write it Down: Based on the above results, write an essay in favor of the election process or against it.

This Week in Black History

  • Nov. 12, 1974: South Africa is suspended from the United Nations because of its apartheid policies.
  • Nov. 14, 1839: The Liberty Party, the first anti-slavery party in the country, convenes in New York.
  • Nov. 19, 1993: Black and white South African leaders approved a new democracy, giving Blacks the vote and ending white minority rule.