If you think you joined tens of millions of Americans around the country voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – or any of the other candidates – to elect the next president, you’re sort of right. But you’re also sort of wrong.
The United States doesn’t have a single election for president. It has 50 separate elections for president, one in each state, and the votes don’t actually determine who is president, but rather who goes the state’s Electoral College to vote for president.
The Electoral College is one of those buffers the Founding Fathers erected to protect the new nation from something that really worried them: direct democracy.
Despite what you may hear from candidates, the founders weren’t big fans of democracy, which they regarded as a half-step away from mob rule.
They wanted voters to pick the people who would pick the president.
Each state gets a certain number of electors based on the number of people they send to Congress. So every state gets at least two electors for their senators, and one for each member of the House of Representatives.
That means Washington, with its 10 representatives and two senators, gets 12, and Idaho, with two and two, gets four. Most states award all their electors to the candidate who wins the state, but Nebraska and Maine have a system in which a candidate with the most votes in a congressional district gets that elector even if the opponent wins the most votes statewide.
In all, there are 538 votes nationwide. To become president, a candidate needs a majority, or at least 270.
The Electoral College does not have an ivy-covered campus, a football team and a funny mascot. It is a college like the College of Cardinals that picks the pope. It isn’t even in one place. Fun fact: The term Electoral College does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution. It’s a term that became popular in the 1800s.
At the beginning of the republic, electors tended to be prominent people in their state or community, in theory chosen because voters could trust them to make a good decision. Now electors are usually chosen at each party’s state convention, and they tend to be people who are either party loyalists or active in the campaign of the party’s nominee.
About a month after the election – this year it’s December 19 – the electors of the party of each state’s winning presidential ticket meet in that state’s capital, where they cast their votes. In Washington they meet in a large, ornate room in the domed Legislative Building.
The vast majority of the time, they vote for their party’s nominee. But not always. In 1976, when then-President Gerald Ford won Washington but Democrat Jimmy Carter won the presidency, one of Washington’s electors cast a vote for Ronald Reagan. In doing so, he created the answer to a trivia question: Who cast the first Electoral College vote for Reagan? Mike Padden of the Spokane Valley, currently a state senator.
Some states have laws that require their electors to cast their vote to match the state election results, but no “faithless elector” has ever been prosecuted. On the flip side were the extremely faithful Democratic electors of 1872, who cast their votes for Horace Greeley, even though he died between the election and the day the electors met. Their votes were invalidated because Greeley, being dead, was not eligible to become president. It didn’t matter, however, because Ulysses S. Grant had won the election in a landslide.
The winner of the Electoral College vote is usually, but not always, the candidate who has the most overall votes, what’s commonly called the “popular vote.” The two can be different if one candidate wins several states by large margins, but the rest are split by very small margins. That closeness doesn’t show up in the winner-take-all division of electors.
Because the Republican and Democratic parties dominate American politics in each state, their electors are almost always the ones voting when the college meets. The last time an independent or third-party candidate received Electoral College votes was in 1968, when George Wallace, running as the American Independent Party nominee, won five southern states and 68 electoral votes. Richard Nixon had more than enough electors to win the presidency.
Evan McMullin, an independent candidate on the ballot in 11 states, is thought to have the best chance of any independent or minor party candidate to win electoral votes this year because polls have him at or near the top of a three-way race in his home state of Utah.
If McMullin were to win Utah’s six electoral votes, and neither Clinton nor Trump were to get to 270, the electors still would meet in their respective capitals on December 19. And that’s when the wild “what ifs” would start.
What if some Republican electors decided Ted Cruz was a better choice than Trump? In Washington, all the electors picked at the Republican State Convention were originally Cruz supporters.
What if some Democratic electors decided Bernie Sanders was a better choice than Clinton? In Washington, some Democratic electors started out with Sanders.
What if some news event made either or both major party candidates less popular than they are now and other party favorites emerged?
If no candidate gets 270 electoral votes on December 19, the U.S. House of Representatives would begin the next step in the process on January 6, deciding among the top three vote-getters. Each state would get one vote, and the winner would need at least 26 votes to become president.
The procedures for each state delegation to cast its vote is not spelled out in the Constitution, but most likely it would be decided by a majority vote in each delegation. In that case, a heavily populated state like California would be equal to a lightly populated state like Wyoming.
The last time that happened was the election of 1824, when Andrew Jackson had the highest popular vote, but four candidates received some electoral votes. The top three went to the House, one suffered a stroke and after about a month of political maneuvering John Quincy Adams was selected president over Jackson with the help of the fourth-place finisher.
Over the decades, many different ideas have surfaced about changing the way the United States elects its president. That takes a constitutional amendment, and while many have been proposed, none has ever gained much traction in Congress.
Anxiety about the Electoral College is usually highest before the votes are counted on Election Night. If the winner is clear by the next morning, as it usually is, hardly anyone except civics teachers will talk about the Electoral College again for four more years.
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