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Electoral College: A Centuries-Old Relic

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
November 7, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

As soon as I file this election-day column, I will walk down the street to a school near my house, stand in line with my neighbors, answer a few questions to confirm my identity, and then, I will cast vote for president. I love election day energy and the suspense and television coverage of election night. I love our constitution, but the system it enacted to elect our presidents is a centuries-old relic. And the technology for tabulating our votes can be inefficient, inconsistent and unreliable. Most of us vote in person, but we also have early voting, absentee voting, and something only election lawyers in the state of Ohio understand, "provisional" votes. We have a popular vote, but what matters is the vote of the "electoral college."

In the 18th century, our founding fathers (the mothers were excluded) created an indirect voting system because they felt that the commoners lacked the judgment to directly choose their representatives. They allocated 3/5ths of a "person" to each adult male slave, and added this total to the white male vote to calculate the population of each state. That total then determined the number of "electors" each state could contribute to a total national tally, called the electoral college. Although slavery has since been abolished and we have universal suffrage, this unfair electoral college system painfully, and somewhat quaintly, lives on. Each state (with a few exceptions) uses a winner-take-all system to assign its electoral votes, not its popular vote, to one of the two presidential candidates. The state's total electoral votes are determined by the number of members of the House of Representatives, plus its two senators. The census determines the total number of electoral college votes, now 538. The next president must have 270 to win.

In 2000, George W. Bush won the electoral vote after the Supreme Court stopped the vote count in Florida and awarded Bush that state's electoral college votes. Al Gore won the national popular vote, and still lost the presidency. This time, Obama could win the electoral college and Romney the popular vote, with Ohio causing the trouble. The two are in a dead heat in the national polls. But in the ten swing states, where voters elect Republicans and Democrats and where the candidates have spent the most time and money, Obama has won by a hair in most polls over the last week, according to the remarkable statistician at the New York Times, Nate Silver. My solidly democratic state of Maryland, just a few miles from the White House, won't determine the presidential outcome. But we do have meaningful state referenda on gay marriage, casinos, and more rights immigrant students. Can you guess my vote?

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