Most Americans believe that when we go to the polls in presidential elections, we cast our vote for the president. But in reality, we don’t vote for the president – we vote for a set of electors who themselves vote for the president. It’s called the electoral college, and it’s the reason why a handful of presidents have lost the popular vote, but still won the election. On this episode of Stuff You Should Know, Josh and Chuck break down this convoluted Constitutional process, give a few examples of when it worked perfectly and when it didn’t, and explain the arguments for and against keeping the process in place.
Back in the day, the framers of the Constitution didn’t trust a majority vote; Alexander Hamilton argued that the average person doesn’t have the “requisite qualifications” to actually elect the leader of the country, and James Madison feared “factions” would swing elections with small majority wins. But the Founders didn’t want Congress to pick the president, either. Their solution was the electoral college. The number of electors for each state is directly tied to their representation in Congress – two, for the number of senators, plus however many representatives the state has, for a total of 538. In theory, this should mean that the electoral vote still represents the majority vote, since the most populous states have the most electoral votes. But it hasn’t always worked out that way.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes only carried a bunch of small states, but their combined electoral votes gave him the edge to win, even though he lost the popular vote by 264,000 ballots. On the other side of the coin, in 1888, Benjamin Harrison eked out a win over incumbent Grover Cleveland, winning by 65 electoral votes even though he lost the popular vote by 95,000. In this case, the electoral college worked perfectly: the South voted as a bloc to cut tariffs, winning Grover the popular vote, and the electoral college prevented that one region from picking the president for the entire country. But the electoral college remains deeply unpopular to voters; since 1958, a majority of Americans have favored getting rid of it, and 700 proposals have been brought to the floor to amend or abolish it – the most of any Constitutional amendment. If a president can be selected by only a few votes cast by party-line electors, then the people aren’t selecting the president at all. Hear all the nitty-gritty about how electors are chosen, how the process varies from state to state, and more on this episode of Stuff You Should Know.
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