Volume 18: Voting in the 2004 Elections
How Do We Elect the President?
Understanding the Electoral College
By Cara Anaam
In the presidential election of 2000, Al Gore got over half a million
more votes nationwide than did George Bush. How then did George Bush
end up as president? Bush got five more votes in the Electoral College,
a system of voting that is used only in elections for the president
and vice president.
What is it?
The 12th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlines the process
for electing the president of the United States. We call this process
the Electoral College system. It is a method of indirect popular election.
On November 2, 2004, voters will cast their ballots in the presidential
election. Their votes actually select a group of electors who pledge
to vote for a specific candidate when the Electoral College meets in
December. The "Electoral College" is the unofficial term coined
in the 1800s for this group of citizens who cast the official votes
that elect the president and vice president.
How does it work?
The presidential/vice-presidential pair who wins the popular vote in
any given state (except for Maine and Nebraska) receives all of the
state's Electoral College votes. In the other two states, the electoral
votes are assigned in proportion to the popular vote.
In the end, the winner of the race is the candidate who receives a
majority (270) of the 538 Electoral College votes. The results of the
2004 election won't be official until the president of the Senate counts
the votes out loud at a special joint session of Congress held on January
Find your state on the map showing how many electoral votes each state
will have in the 2004 election. How many electoral votes does your state
have? What state has the most? Which states have the least?
Why do we do it this way?
As they drafted a Constitution, the founders of our country had
a difficult problem to solve in deciding how a president should be elected
in a nation of 4,000,000 people spread up and down a thousand miles
of the Atlantic seaboard. In 1776, there was no Internet, no television
or radio networks, no newspapers that were read all over the country;
communication between states and among people in a state took a long
time. Travel was difficult; there was no system of interstate highways,
no planes, no cars. To get from one place to another to visit or exchange
ideas, they relied on horses, boats, or their own feet.
It is also true that our nation in the beginning was composed of thirteen
large and small states, all jealous of their rights and powers and suspicious
of any central, national government. The founders needed to find a way
of giving each state some power in the election of a president, not
just the larger ones. They rejected the idea that the president should
be elected by popular vote because they feared that people would only
know about candidates from their own states. This would give all the
power to the larger states.
Is it the best system for today?
The system the founders designed has been used with modifications
ever since. Today conditions have changed and people now have easy access
to information about a range of candidates. The pros and cons of using
the Electoral College system are still argued.
Those in favor of it argue:
- It contributes to the cohesiveness of the country by requiring
that popular support for a presidential candidate be found throughout
the entire country.
- It gives power to smaller states.
- It contributes to political stability by encouraging a two-party
Opponents argue that:
- It makes it possible to elect a president who doesn't get a popular
- It creates a risk that an elector may not vote according to the
will of the voters who elected him.
- It makes it very difficult for support for a third-party candidate
to get recognized thus keeping out new ideas.
Cara Anaam is the co-editor of The Change Agent.
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