Explaining the U.S. Electoral College to Foreigners and Children

So, you’ve learned about our branches of government and the positions in each one. You’ve learned about both of our political parties and all the pity parties people vote for when their candidate doesn’t get nominated. You’ve even learned how to practice democracy, so now it’s time to vote for the President of the United States in less than a month, right?

Eh … sort of.

Our electoral system, like the rest of our government as we know it today, was established in about two crazy months in secret back in 1787. Let’s just say that, in order to evade the Articles of Confederation and get all the states to agree in writing, some fast and heady compromises were made. The Electoral College, which is what you’re really voting for, is one of them.

Confused? Don’t worry. Even most seasoned citizens don’t quite understand how it works, making this the most requested “Explaining … to Foreigners and Children” guide I’ve never wanted to write. Nevertheless, here is the Electoral College.

What the fuck is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is not a single body, but actually a collection of (currently) 538 electors. Each state appoints electors through whatever method they decide.

The most common method is by a winner-take-all system. You and maybe half of the eligible electorate exercise their right to walk into an elementary school — even in direct violation of your parole — to vote for the president. The results of your voting, called the popular vote, decides which candidate “won.” Then, the party that the winning candidate belongs to works with the state government to appoint all of the electors for that state. So, in the case of Virginia, there are eleven electors to represent each congressional district in the state, and then two “at large” electors to correspond with the number of senators, and all of them were Democrats in 2008 because Barack Obama won Virginia.

In Maine and Nebraska, it’s decided by the popular vote per congressional district. So, if Maine has four electors, one or two of those could be Republican because of a couple of Republican districts while the rest are Democrat.

All that the federal government cares is that each state doesn’t appoint more electors than their number of congressional senators and representatives, and that those electors meet and vote in their state house on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December every Leap Year. (Ability to figure out when that is is one of the requirements for an elector.)

Why the hell is there an Electoral College?

OK, so when a group of big wigs met in 1787 to merely “revise” the Articles of Confederation, they decided to throw the whole thing out the window with the contents of their chamber pots. If you’ve seen 1776, then you know that slave states and non-slave states were about to battle Glee-style all over again like they did with the Declaration of Independence, only without an occupying army to prod them into agreeing to disagree. This meant that, in order to write down a government, they had to make compromises sure to embarrass later generations like the time you found out you were conceived at a “key party.”

One of those compromises that we still suck our teeth at today is the three-fifths compromise, which boiled down to slaves being counted in the U.S. census, but only as three-fifths of a human being. Each state’s population — black “people” and all — then determined the number of representatives they had in one house of congress. And then, just to make sure slave owners didn’t wig out about their states’ rights being infringed upon and secede (whoops), all the states got an equal number of senators: two apiece.

The Electoral College is basically each state’s U.S. representatives and senators, only they can’t be sitting U.S. representatives or senators. Instead, each state picks an entire set of different assholes to vote for the President in a way that keeps whiny states with more bears than people feeling good about themselves.

Who are these goddamn electors?

As I mentioned before, they’re appointed, usually after you vote on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November of the Leap Year. (And, who says the U.S. isn’t burdened with silly pagan rules?) In most cases, they’re party favorites who have either held state office in the past, served in the party or are in some way connected to the Presidential candidate.

As for finding out who they actually are, good luck. Not every state discloses who they are, presumably because they’re not exactly popular and to keep them safe from voter intimidation. Plus, it’s also unlikely you’d know them even if they were named. The average citizen doesn’t know who represents them in the U.S. House of Representatives, much less the person voting on their entire district’s behalf for the guy with the nuclear launch codes.

But they have to vote for the candidate who won, right?

Not exactly. Remember how the federal government doesn’t care how states appoint electors, just so long as they get it done? They also don’t care how the electors vote once appointed, either. Over half of our states don’t care, either.

24 states, however, have laws that require their electors to pledge to vote for the winning candidate. If an elector refuses to take the pledge, the state can then replace them before the vote. And if they vote for the other guy, they can have their vote voided. There’s no real punishment for faithless electors other than censure by the party who appointed them, although I’m sure someone in Texas thought it would be funny to “electorcute” them.

But, don’t worry! No faithless elector has ever changed the outcome of an election … yet.

And nobody thinks this is bullshit?

Aw, sure. Lots of people. They just can’t seem to do anything about it.

The closest we got to abolishing the Electoral College was in 1969, right after Richard Nixon overwhelmingly won the electoral vote despite having only 500,000 more votes in the popular election than Hubert Humphrey. But, just in case you think it didn’t pass because President Tricky Dick vetoed a bill, think again.

President Nixon supported the proposed amendment, which would have awarded the presidency and vice presidency to the candidates that won over 40 percent of the popular vote. The House passed it 339 to 70. 30 out of the 38 state legislatures required to ratify it had said they were ready to do so. And then a delegation of Senators from smaller states and the South blocked it with a filibuster. And that, as they say, was that.

So, don’t forget to vote! If you don’t, then you’re not allowed to complain about the anonymous stranger you elected to vote for the President!


Share this Post:

One thought on “Explaining the U.S. Electoral College to Foreigners and Children”

  1. The electoral college is a mess. Even though I live in a small state(Kansas), I believe in the principle — one person, one vote. As a Democrat living in a strongly Red state, my vote for President has never counted (except in the footnote where they mention the popular vote).

Comments are closed.