How the US Electoral College System Works


The United States has the oldest surviving democratic constitution in the world. In the context of its times, it was an inspirational and enlightened document. Yet the US has also shown itself slow to reform its political institutions and practices. As a result, many aspects of its election procedures lag well behind world’s best practice.

The faults and foibles of its presidential election system were dramatically on display in Florida in 2000, in the election that delivered the world the presidency of George W Bush. Most public controversy centered on the unreliability of the Florida count, problems with the voting machines (eg the "hanging chads") and how the registration of voters by the Republican state government had obstructed some potential voters from exercising their rights.

The United States does not have an institution with the scope and authority of the Australian Electoral Commission. As long as the power to conduct elections remains in the hands of state and local governments, a proliferation of practices, some dubious, will continue.

In 2000, these issues were decided, politically at least, by the shamelessly partisan decision of the Supreme Court not to allow a recount because it was only seven weeks until a new presidential administration was due to take office.

There was one peculiarity of the US presidential election system, however, that was not a matter of public controversy even though it did directly affect the outcome and thwarted the will of the majority. In the United States, the result of presidential elections is decided not by the popular vote but by the election of state delegates to the "Electoral College". It is the majority there that determines who is elected president. In 48 of the states, all delegates go to whichever candidate wins the most votes in that state.

Altogether there are 538 Electoral College votes. They are distributed on the basis of population size, but each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia are guaranteed a minimum of three.

So it is not the popular majority that counts but the states that each candidate wins, and the number of delegates each state delivers. The magic number is 270 delegates.

The popular vote and Electoral College of course tend to coincide, but not automatically so. The winner-take-all system tends to magnify the popular majority in clear cut elections. For example, in the Reagan re-election landslide of 1984, Reagan had a large winning margin of 18 per cent over Walter Mondale in the popular vote (59 per cent to 41 per cent), but this delivered him 525 Electoral College votes (or 98 per cent). Mondale received just 13, because he obtained a majority only in the District of Columbia and Minnesota.

Sometimes in closely contested elections, the Electoral College wanders considerably from the proportions in the popular vote. The narrowest winning margin in the last century was the victory by John Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960. The difference between them was only 113,000 votes, or 0.16 per cent of the votes cast. But Kennedy won decisively, by 84 Electoral College votes. No doubt Nixon learnt his lesson, because in 1968, when he defeated Humphrey by only half a million votes (43.4 per cent to 42.7 per cent, with third party candidate Wallace on 13.5 per cent), he won the Electoral College easily (301 to 191 to 46).

On four occasions, the winner in terms of the majority popular vote has actually lost the election. Three of these were in the 1800s. Then, in the first election of the twenty-first century, it happened again. Al Gore won half a million votes more than George W Bush (48.4 per cent to 47.9 per cent) but lost the Electoral College 266 to 271 (with one elector abstaining).

It seems odd that the election of an individual leader, such as president, should be mediated by an institution, such as an electoral college, rather than elected directly. The original motives possibly included a distrust of the public, or a wish to reassure the smaller states in the federation. Perhaps it did make some sense in the age of the stage coach and telegraph. In as large a country as America there was the possibility that because of regional variations no clear winner would emerge, and that in such a situation, an electoral college could broker an acceptable outcome. With the national scale of modern political parties, media, transport and so on, such rationalisations are no longer relevant.

The Electoral College is clearly an anachronism, and distorts the democratic process. Some Americans resist the idea of going to a simple count on the basis that the candidates would then concentrate all their activity on the big states, somewhat disenfranchising the small states. But the current system does this at least as much. A candidate has no incentive to increase his or her vote in states that they think they have no hope of winning. Nor do they have any incentive to further increase their vote in states where they are sure they are going to win. So the presidential campaign becomes intensely focused on what are called the swing states, or in American jargon, "purple states" (between Democrat blue and Republican red).

A side benefit of abolishing the Electoral College and going to a national plebiscite is that it would eliminate the relevance of local corruption and abuses. Parochial corruption that delivers a winner-take-all constituency might have political relevance, as it did in Florida in 2000, but that effect would be swallowed into irrelevance by the enormous size of the national vote.

As George W Bush changed his winning margin from minus 0.5 per cent in 2001 to plus 2.5 per cent in 2004, he made a net gain of only one state. Only three states changed hands between 2000 and 2004: New Mexico and Iowa from Democratic to Republican, and New Hampshire in the other direction. Despite his sizeable increase in the popular vote, Bush only increased his Electoral College tally from 271 to 286. Indeed, if John Kerry had won Ohio (and the Democrats charged irregularities in that state) he would have won the election.

Although the immediate movement back and forth of states is not great, over time there have been important and enduring changes. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s and Richard Nixon’s cultivation of the politics of resentment, the Republicans broke the New Deal coalition and many southern states moved from being regularly Democrat to regularly Republican. The only two Democrats to win presidential elections since 1972 have been southerners — Carter and Clinton — which helped them defy the dominant pattern. In contrast, the West Coast and the states with the biggest cities (including Illinois and New York) have tended to become more frequently Democratic.

In 2008 the two campaigns have concentrated their efforts only on states where they think they have a chance of gaining (or danger of losing) a majority. An example of this strategy came at the beginning of October. On the day before the vice-presidential debate, John McCain’s campaign announced that he was cancelling a planned appearance in Michigan and let it be known that they had given up hope of winning that state, and were scaling back their presence there.

While the progress of the campaign is reported in terms of national polls, the key to winning is to win a majority of the Electoral College. Two websites combine the results of all the available polls and then track the progress of the campaign in terms of Electoral College votes — the Rasmussen Report and RealClearPolitics. Rasmussen lists states as "toss ups", and also those that are "solid", "likely" or "leaning" towards one party or the other.

Last night Australian time, Rasmussen had seven states listed as "toss-ups" (with a total of 92 College votes), all of which were won by the Republicans at the last election. There were three states listed as "leaning" Democrat (26 votes) and a further 21 states (260 votes) as "likely" or "solid" for the Democrats. If all the states classed as solid, likely and leaning in one direction are put together, then Obama was looking at winning 286 Electoral College votes and McCain 160. In other words Obama seems set to win 16 more College votes than he needs to take the presidency, and may well win a lot more than that.

RealClearPolitics was listing 278 Electoral College votes for Obama, 132 for McCain and 128 in the toss up column (for states where the site’s averaging of available polls finds the margin between Obama and McCain is less than 5 per cent). Here again, Obama is well ahead in states that would give him more College votes than the 270 he needs to win.

This is why the state is the principal unit in the presidential race, and why candidates, as usual, have spent a disproportionate amount of time and resources in states that are seen to be borderline, and especially in those with the most Electoral College votes — Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia.

It would be a surprise if the polling were absolutely precise, and perhaps it is likely that the final margin will be closer than the forecasts. But on current figures it would also be very strange if Obama didn’t win convincingly.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.