Do we vote for candidates or Electors?

A viewer asked this question on 8/21/2000:

Isn't the president and vice president chosen by the electoral college and not by popular vote? Why all this campaigning? Shouldn't I be concerned about the congressional candidates-the ones that my vote counts for? Please enlighten.

madpol gave this response on 8/22/2000:

The electoral college does elect the president. But the popular vote in each state determines who gets to sits in the electoral college. Whoever wins a state in the popular vote gets that state's electoral votes.

So, what you are actually doing is electing the people who elect the President. And since the electors are committed to vote for the winning candidate in their state on the first ballot, the guy with the highest popular vote has always won the electoral college as well.

There has been a lot of talk about changing the system, but it really does serve an important purpose. Each state casts two votes for it's senators as well as one vote each for its number of representatives.

In a direct popular system, candidates could win the election by focussing on the more populous states, while ignoring the smaller ones. This would weaken smaller states' political voice.

Also, presidential elections are big business. The two major parties are expected to spend upwards of $150 million combined this year, with the Reform Party getting another $25m. Throw in primary spending, merchandising and tourism connected with visits by presidential candidates, etc. And it becomes something that no state can afford to not get a piece of

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/21/2000:

In the general election, we vote for Electors. To do so, you vote (say) for Al Gore, but actually you're voting for electors who are committed to Al Gore. Same for Bush -- he has Electors lined up in each state too. After the election, the Electors go vote for the President. They meet -- that's called the Electoral College -- and vote for the candidate they're committed to. They're committed on the first ballot, but if there's no majority, they go to a second ballot, which is wide open. There are some rules in the Constitution about the Congress assisting in the decision if the Electoral College gets deadlocked.

The number of Electors is set to the same number as each state has for Congressmen plus Senators. DC and Puerto Rico get some electors too.

The thing that prevents "electoral abuse" is that the Electors are usually pretty responsible people, who want the process to work.

The system was set up this way because in the 1790s, communication and transportation were lousy. The Electors had to traipse to DC and tell the rest of the country who the people in their state wanted. The system was set up for the Olden Days -- it is outdated today, obviously.

Maybe someday, the hue and cry will be loud enough to amend the Constitution -- but I think it's kind of fun having a clunky old system.

gardens1 asked this follow-up question on 8/21/2000:

So tell me if I'm wrong-let's say I go vote in my district which is represented by Mr. Electoral. He finds out after the general election that I along with the majority of everyone else wants Gore to be the president. Mr. Electoral goes to D.C. and votes for Gore because that's who won the district he represents. And he's honest so he's not going to vote for Bush after we said vote for Gore. Seems this is the only way it could work out and have my vote count also.

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/22/2000:

Yes, that's correct.

But Mr. Electoral is entirely invisible to the voter -- you simply vote for Gore or Bush. So the effect is that you don't care about Mr. Electoral at all, and you can pretend he doesn't exist with hardly any difference in your voting behavior.

The only aspect you got slightly wrong is the "district." Electoral districts are by definition entire states. Electors represent the whole state, not a sub-district of a state. So if Massachusetts' popular vote is 51% or more for Gore, all of the Massachusetts electors go to DC and vote for Gore, even if there are large areas of the state where Bush got 90% of the vote. The Electoral vote is "all-or-nothing" within each state, which is why large states are considered more important.

Let me conclude with a personal example of how votes DO count. I live in Massachusetts, where it's a foregone conclusion that our Electoral votes will go for Gore (we were the only state to vote against Nixon in 1972, you'll recall). Those of us who vote for Gore know that our vote will count in the Electoral vote, and those of us who vote for anyone else know that the Electoral vote won't count us. But it DOES matter if Bush barely loses Massachusetts (say, 50.1% to 49.9%) versus overwhelmingly losing (say, 60% to 40%). A close loss would be seen as a milestone of Massachusetts turning away from being the die-hard Democrat. In that sense, every vote for Bush counts despite the Electoral vote.

And with Nader in the race in Massachusetts, our vote can count even more. Liberals in Massachusetts have the luxury of being able to vote for Nader without fear that their vote will give Bush an electoral victory. Hence liberals can vote for Nader and help him get the 5% needed to qualify for full funding for the Green Party in 2004, or the 15% needed to qualify for the debates (unlikely outside of Massachusetts!).

gardens1 asked this question on 8/21/2000:

Isn't the president and vice president chosen by the electoral college and not by popular vote? Why all this campaigning? Shouldn't I be concerned about the congressional candidates-the ones that my vote counts for? Please enlighten.

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/21/2000:

The president and his running mate may be chosen by the Electoral College, but guess who gets to pick the Electoral College - voters do. The candidate who wins the state gets all of the Electoral Votes of that state. Electors are pledged to candidates before the election and cannot change their mind or exercise any discretion once the Electoral College meets. The vote by the Electoral College is a mere formality (unless there is a tie).

There has not been a candidate who won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College since Grover Cleveland (circa 1884). In a freak situation, Cleveland's votes were wasted by winning small states by large margins, while his opponent, Benjamin Harrison, won most of the big states in a squeaker.

Because such a contradictory result is so rare, there has been no move to change the Electoral College system (which would require a Constitutional Amendment).

A viewer asked this follow-up question on 8/21/2000:

But the constitution says the congress of each state chooses a number of EC members that equals the number of seats in their House and Senate. If I vote for the EC members, where do I vote and how do I find out how they are going to vote?

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/22/2000:

The constitution was amended (Amendment XII) to formalize the present procedure. In the original constitution, the state legislatures did choose their own electors, but there was no direct vote for electors. Nowadays, although the language is archaic, all states are obliged to used pledged electors that are elected by the voters.

Also, for practical purposes, when you vote for electors you do so by voting for a President/Vice president ticket rather than all the electors. Electors are never elected individually but must be elected as a whole group for either candidate from each state (the "winner takes all" method).

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