A US Electoral College Primer for Foreigners

(This is about politics, but it won’t be political). Many of my non-US friends are looking at our post-election cycle and wondering “WTF, guys?” They primarily live in parliamentarian countries, and the US electoral system is indeed a bit Byzantine from that perspective. So here’re the basics:

First, understand that the US Constitution was formed with by “the several states,” a key phrase that means the states are, to some degree, autonomous governments. The Federal Union is somewhat akin to the European Union, in fact. pressuring its members to pass laws and such. The Union in the US is absolutely more total and powerful than in the EU, but it’s a good analogy.

Under the US system, the People vote not for President, but instead of a college of designated Electors – the Electoral College. We do this for Vice-President, too, although under the modern system the People vote for a combined ticket, while the Electors vote for both positions independently. Keep in mind that the Presidency is our only elected Federal position; our Senate and House are elected by direct vote, but they represent the State they come from. The general feeling behind creating the Electoral College had a bit to do with a basic mistrust of the People, and a concern that news moves so slowly (in the 1700s) that the People wouldn’t be informed enough to vote for President. So instead, they vote for Electors, whom they trust to vote on their behalf for a President.

Yeah, we know the system is archaic. But it’s tough to change our Constitution – really tough – the the current system benefits our Republican party (the only times a President has won the College without winning the popular vote has been for a Republican, and it’s only happened like 4 times in almost 250 years). There’s never been a time when the Republican party has been so weak that they couldn’t stop a Constitutional amendment (those have to be ratified by 2/3 of the State legislatures, in addition to Congress).

Under the law, the States get to decide who is appointed as an Elector. Typically, the parties appoint their favorite sons and daughters, and the State approves them. But this is a key thing: the State decides who the Electors get to be. So they can choose party loyalists, or refuse and instead appoint someone else. Each State has slightly different rules, and this really goes  back to “the Several States” being seen as independent governments. There’s actually something of a nascent multi-State compact that’s talking about a back-room agreement to certify Electors from the party that won the national popular vote, versus those who represent the winning party of the State itself. This does something to ensure that the winner of the popular vote also wins the College; many of the States considering this Compact are Western states with large populations and a correspondingly large number of Electoral Votes at play. This would be completely Constitutional, if a bit weird. It’s worth noting that our coastal States tend to be stronger Federalists – e.g., they’re more about us being one country through and through. The middle states tend to be a bit more “States-rights,” meaning they want to preserve a lot of power for the individual States. Both views are fine, and go back to the founding of the country. The States considering this Compact tend to be Federalist-leaning, which makes sense.

A bit over half our States require Electors to cast their Electoral Vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state. The rest do not, and there’s even some serious legal questioning over whether or not States can have a requirement in the first place. The Electors were meant to represent the People of a State, not the State itself, and so it’s generally considered likely that a “rogue Elector” would face no legal penalties. Some folks in Colorado are even proactively suing over this, in hopes they’ll win a court precedent that could protect Electors in other States.

This election has been a shit-show, no doubt. I’m personally getting nostalgic about hanging chads.

So that’s kind of where we are right now. We’re recounting votes in several States to make sure we got it right; because it’s all-or-nothing with Electors, close-margin States could potentially shift to the other candidate (no one sees this as a strong likelihood), tipping the election. We’ve also got “rogue Electors” who’ve said they’ll refuse to vote for the designated candidate, and instead do a write-in vote for someone else in their party. Nobody seriously expects that to be enough people to shift the difference, but it’s a possibility. What’s really vexing to most of us, at this point (at least within my circle), is that we’re just exhausted by this whole process and we want it to be over.

It’s funny that, in the US, we’re often approached to help young democracies organize their governments, and we almost invariably recommend a parliamentary-style system like those used throughout Western Europe, and almost invariably recommend away from our setup. We know we’re weird, this way, but it reflects a lot of underlying principles and realities that, while they might not be valid anymore, might still be valid, and are incredibly hard to change regardless.

It’s also worth noting that this is not our original Presidential election system. This is the second one. The original one still used an Electoral College, but had some really weird(er) rules for selecting Electors, denied anyone but white landowning men a vote, and even counted Black slaves fractionally when it came to totaling Electoral votes. So our current system might be weird, but it’s at least less medieval than it used to be.


One thought on “A US Electoral College Primer for Foreigners

Comments are closed