You’re Not Actually Voting for Your Presidential Candidate

Your general election vote for president does not elect the president directly; it casts your choice for the Electoral College, partisan elector politicians who may or may not get to select your candidate. If you vote for one candidate, but the majority of your state’s voters vote for the other candidate, the other candidate gets all of your state’s votes.

The name, Electoral College, was adopted by our founding fathers and written into the Constitution. It gives each state a number of electors based on its Congressional delegation (U.S. senators and representatives). If you look at your state on the map above, you will see a number representing your two U.S. senators plus your total number of U.S. representatives. That is how many electors your state gets of the 538 total electors voting for the president. The candidate receiving the majority of electoral votes–at least 270–wins the election. Note that the Constitution also gives the District of Columbia three electors. This map can change in state numbers with each ten-year census, but the total remains the same.

Most states have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the state’s winning presidential candidate. However, Maine and Nebraska each have a variation of proportional representation. I will disregard these two exceptions in my following comments. Each state’s political parties select their own potential electors. These electors are usually state office holders and prominent party supporters, but cannot be U.S. senators or representatives. The candidate winning the majority of the state’s popular vote is awarded the winning party’s electors. For example, if Trump wins over 50% of a state’s votes, he receives the Republican electors, and the Democratic electors become non-players. So, when you cast your vote, you are actually voting for your party’s electors, not for your choice for president. These electors are pledged to vote for their party’s candidate, but, with a few exceptions, are not legally bound to vote that way. It is very rare, though, that an elector does not vote according to his or her pledge.

The often-discussed “swing” states are extremely important in every election, especially this year. Most states’ electoral outcomes can already be predicted with considerable accuracy. The Republican red states and the Democratic blue states have been reasonably consistent in recent presidential elections, although less so this year. However, states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Florida have high elector numbers and close popular votes. For instance, Florida could divide its popular votes almost evenly, but a candidate that would squeak by with just over 50% would receive all 29 electoral votes. Remember Bush’s victory in 2000 when Gore won the nation’s popular vote by a half-million votes, but lost the determining electoral vote in Florida? Bush had a majority of only 537 popular votes in the state. By the way, if a third party is involved, and no candidate receives 270 or more electoral votes, the House votes for the president from among the three candidates.

This process may seem unfair, but it is really a reflection of America’s historical determination to ensure equity among all citizens. It requires candidates to convince all people of their worthiness to serve regardless of geographical location or social culture. If we elected presidents by popular vote, the candidates could concentrate only on the more populated areas, say the northeast and west coast states, and ignore the Midwest and South. It prevents the tyranny of the majority. It also discourages voter fraud, since any attempt to steal an election would have to involve almost all states, not just a few. Even with its shortfalls, the Electoral College is the most equitable method of electing a president.

Here is this year’s Electoral College schedule. The general election is always the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which is November 8th this year. Of course, the results will probably be revealed that night, but the official casting of votes by the electors will not happen until their meeting on December 19th. Technically, the president is not selected until that meeting. Before they meet, the governors of each state will certify their state electors’ qualifications and authority to the U.S. Archivist who is ultimately responsible for the Electoral College process. Currently, David Ferriero (whom you have probably never heard of) has this responsibility in addition to his management of the National Archives repository. On January 6th, 2017, the certified votes of the Electoral College are counted in a joint session of the House and Senate, and the winner of the presidency is officially announced. On January 20th, 2017, the new president takes the oath of office at noon and begins his term.

So there is your quick review of the mechanics of electing our 45th president. Finally, I urge you to study, think, and pray earnestly about your vote in this election. We could hardly have wider extremes of political philosophy or more negative factors to consider than those of these two candidates. The process is important to understand, but the impact of our choices on the future of this great nation is monumental.

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