Electoral College 101: Why We Have It, How It Works And How It Might Change

Though some would say it's outdated, others would argue it's invaluable.

California leads the nation in a number of things — it has the most people, the biggest economy, the most muscular governor, and so on. Yet a Californian's vote in the presidential race is worth less than a vote for president anywhere else in the country.

In fact, each Californian's vote is worth about one-quarter of a vote cast in Wyoming, one-third of a vote in Vermont, and one-half of a vote in Hawaii. If you think this is unfair, blame the Electoral College. Unless, of course, you live in Wyoming, Vermont, Hawaii or one of the other 34 states that benefit from the system.

As anyone who sat through high school civics class knows, the president in not elected by a nationwide popular vote, but by the vote of 538 electors. These electors are divided among the states based on the number of senators (always two) and representatives (based on population) that each state sends to Congress. Populous states, as a result, have a lot of electors (California has 55), and mostly empty states have only a handful (Wyoming has three).

When voters go to the polls on November 2, they don't vote directly for the president, but instead to determine who wins the electors — and it's winner-take-all — from their state. For example, if John Kerry wins more votes than George W. Bush in California, he wins all 55 of California's electoral votes. Add up the electoral votes from each state, and whoever wins a majority (at least 270 votes) wins the presidency.

Sounds fairly simple, but here's the rub: Because the formula for assigning electors includes the two senators from each state, small states receive a disproportionate vote in the Electoral College. Wyoming, for example, has barely 500,000 residents and three electoral votes (two senators and one representative) — thus, each Wyoming elector effectively represents a little more than 165,000 people. California, on the other hand, has more than 35 million residents and 55 electoral votes (two senators and 53 representatives), which means that each California elector represents about 615,000 people. In other words, 165,000 Wyomingites have the same voice in selecting the president as 615,000 Californians.

So why do we have this system? Rewarding Wyoming and penalizing California certainly wasn't the goal when the Electoral College was established (at the time, California belonged to Spain and Wyoming belonged to France). Rather, the system was set up as a safeguard against the people electing some crazed demagogue as president.

The Electoral College was devised in a time when your average citizen couldn't turn on CNN and find out what the candidates were up to — or even who they were. The drafters of the Constitution therefore reasoned that a handful of educated electors (probably wealthy, white landowners) would be able to make a better decision than the rabble in the streets. In fact, until the 1820s, many states' electors were not selected through a popular vote at all, but selected by state legislatures.

While times have changed, much of the Electoral College system has remained the same. Detractors now call it an unjust anachronism and argue that it is impossible to justify giving the votes of certain people (who happen, by the way, to be largely white) greater weight than the votes of others (who are much more likely to be minorities).

And it's not just city dwellers' votes that aren't fully counted — the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College system also marginalizes the votes of everyone who votes for the losing candidate in a state. For example, if Bush wins Ohio (20 electoral votes) by one vote, he wins all of its electoral votes, despite the millions of Ohioans who prefer Kerry. As a result, candidates tend to spend most of their time campaigning in swing states rather than states in which they are likely to win big or lose big (see "What Are Swing States — And Why Are They Getting So Much Love From The Candidates?").

In spite of this criticism, supporters of the Electoral College argue that it still serves an important purpose by giving a voice to voters in smaller, rural states. After all, if the presidential election were merely a nationwide popularity contest (as many Electoral College reformers desire), candidates might campaign for votes only in the dozen or so biggest cities. New York and Los Angeles together contain almost 12 million people, more than the population of the 12 smallest states (plus the District of Columbia) combined. Throw in Chicago, Houston and a few other cities and a candidate would never need to step foot in most of the country. By giving small states a disproportionate vote, the Electoral College protects their involvement in the campaign process.

The election of 2000 provided ammunition for both sides. Although Al Gore beat Bush by more than 540,000 votes nationwide, he lost the presidency by five Electoral College votes. Detractors were up in arms — after all, the guy who got the most votes lost the election. Supporters of the Electoral College, on the other hand, applauded the result and argued that if Al Gore had won just one more state, any state, he would have won the election, so maybe he should have spent a little more time in West Virginia or Tennessee. In addition, supporters pointed to another benefit of the system — it localized the need for a recount to only one state and reduced the risk of nationwide voter fraud. Given the confusion regarding the recount in Florida, imagine if Bush had beat Gore by 537 votes nationwide.

Love the Electoral College or hate it, it's probably here to stay. Scrapping it would take a constitutional amendment, which requires ratification by three-fourths of the states, many of whom benefit from the status quo. There is another possibility for reform, though, and that is for more states to follow the lead of Maine and Nebraska, who have moved away from the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes (see "Forget Florida, Colorado May Supply Election Drama This Year"). In Maine, for example, the winner of each congressional district receives one electoral vote, while the winner of the whole state receives another two — thus, candidates can split the vote of a state. While this doesn't correct for the disproportionate voting power of small states, it may make the electoral vote more closely approximate the popular one.

One thing is certain, the Electoral College is going to be around for this election, and given the closeness of the race, it might play a crucial role once again. If you know folks in Wyoming, you may want to give them a call.