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How Electors Have Been Chosen for Nearly 250 Years?

Photo: Stephanie Keith Agence France-Presse Contrary to popular belief, the American president is not elected by popular vote.

Benoit Valois-Nadeau

Published at 0:00 Updated at 12:07 a.m.

  • United States

In this section taken from the American Election Courier, our journalists answer questions from our readers. Click here to subscribe.

How the electors are chosen ? – Adélard Guillemette

Why not abolish the electoral college, a completely undemocratic system, in my opinion ? – Terry O'Grady

Contrary to popular belief, the American president is not elected by popular vote. Rather, he is chosen by an electoral college, a system inherited from the founding fathers of the United States, who participated in the drafting of the American Constitution of 1787.

« founding fathers were not particularly supporters of democracy as we understand it today. They did not trust the people to make an informed choice. We therefore created this system where the electorate, at the time white men who owned property, voted for people who would come together to elect a president. It’s a form of indirect suffrage,” explains Christophe Roy-Cloutier, deputy director of the Observatory on the United States of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair.

538 electors

Nearly 250 years later, the Electoral College is still in office. It is made up of electors, who are designated by the legislative assembly of each state. There are 538 in total, chosen from members of civil society or the two main political parties. According to the law, you only need to be 18 years old to be appointed as a major elector. Members of Congress and federal government officials are automatically excluded.

This is essentially an honorary position: the electors do not intervene in any other election or any other political activity.

Each state is entitled to a specific number of electors, which corresponds to the number of senators and representatives it sends to Congress, determined according to its demographic weight. For example, Texas has 40 electors, since it has 38 representatives and 2 senators. A less populated state like Wyoming only has 3 (2 senators, 1 representative).

To become president, it is not enough to obtain the highest number of votes. Above all, you must win the majority of electors, i.e. 270. Thus, in 2020, Joe Biden won after being favored by 306 voters, compared to 232 for Donald Trump.

American voters therefore do not vote directly for a president. Technically, they rather vote for a list of electors committed to voting for a candidate.

These have the watchword to respect the popular vote in their State , according to the formula “ winner takes all “. The candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state is awarded the vote of all the electors of that state. So, even if, next November, Donald Trump won the election in Florida by a single vote, he would still pocket the vote of all 30 voters in the Sunshine State. The exceptions to this formula are Nebraska and Maine, which proportionally distribute their electors according to the results of the vote.

In the days following the presidential election, the electors gather in their respective state capitals to vote for a president and vice president. Their votes will be revealed on January 6, during a session of Congress.

If the vote of the electors is usually only a formality, it has happened in the past that some of them deviate from the rule which requires them to give their vote to the candidate who comes first in their state, but this gesture never influenced the outcome of the election.

Distortion of the vote

This system is often criticized for the distortions it causes. Four times in American history, the presidential election was won by the candidate who finished second in the popular vote.

This was the case when of the 2016 election, won by Donald Trump. The Republican candidate had obtained 306 electors, but 3 million votes less than his rival, Hillary Clinton, who had only won 232 electors.

The same thing occurred in 2000, during George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore.

The electoral college also gives disproportionate importance to the “ swing states“, these states which, thanks to an election, can move from one camp to another. The most populous states, such as New York and California, are ignored by presidential candidates since their votes are already assured to the Democratic Party before the campaign even begins.

“You're much more likely to see a presidential candidate in Manchester, New Hampshire, or Carson City, Nevada, than you are in Los Angeles, New York, or even Texas. The electoral college marginalizes many voters, especially since the number of swing states seems to decrease from one electoral cycle to the next,” mentions Mr. Roy-Cloutier.

The current system also harms third parties and favors two-partyism, according to the political scientist.

“As it is a system that favors parties that are capable of finishing first in elections, because they are the only ones who will seek votes in the electoral college, this will dissuade voters from giving their vote to a third party, since it is essentially a wasted vote. »

Tiny hopes for change

Calls for reform or simple abolition of the electoral college are therefore numerous, and have been for a long time. It is estimated that since 1800, more than 700 such proposals have been presented to Congress. All failed.

Changing the system would require a constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress and three-quarters of the members of the state assemblies. In the context of extreme division that is raging in Washington, the adoption of such an amendment is a fantasy. Especially since the electoral college benefits the two main American political parties.

“The Republican Party really needs the electoral college as it works right now to remain competitive,” says Christophe Roy-Cloutier. Since 1992, it has won the popular vote ahead of the Democrats only once [2004]. And despite everything, it has won three elections in that period. It is essential to its survival. »

Democrats are also benefiting from the situation because the electoral college system “reduces the competition that could come from other parties, such as the Green Party or, this year, the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.”

The hopes for change therefore lie in a modification which would be carried out within the legislative assemblies of the states, therefore easier to achieve.

At present, 17 States, as well as the District of Columbia, have adopted laws that require the vote of their electors to reflect the popular vote nationally.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116