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How Do Americans Elect Their President

  • VOA News
  • Sarkar Kabiruddin

The United States has a curious and archaic way of electing a president. It is not by direct election, as is true in many other countries. The White House is captured by winning state-by-state and accumulating the majority of the votes in an institution called the Electoral College.

Those who founded the United States wanted to ensure that the person elected would be selected by a thoughtful and deliberate process. They saw the Electoral College as a buffer between the sentiments of the electorate and the office of the president.

There are 538 Electors overall, reflecting the size of the U.S. Senate plus the House of Representatives, along with three Electors for the District of Columbia. To win the White House, a candidate must get a majority of those votes, which would be a minimum of 270. It does not matter which states that candidate wins, only that the 270 figure is reached or exceeded by a combination of a sufficient number of states to effect that.

The number of Electors assigned to each state is determined as follows: Each state has two Senators, regardless of its population, and at least one Member of Congress (House of Representatives). So, even the smallest states by population have at least three Electors. States with larger Congressional delegations have that number reflected in their total number of Electors, so, for instance, California has two plus 53 for a total of 55. Florida has two plus 27 for a total of 29, and so forth.

The Electors are people who are party officials in a state, or officeholders, or sometimes, just prominent citizens. And each of the major-party presidential candidates has a "slate" of these Electors on the ballot in the general election. A vote for a particular candidate is a vote for that candidate's slate of Electors.

The Electors meet state-by-state in December, on December 15 in 2008. In 48 of the 50 U.S. states, it is a winner-takes-all system. A certain candidate getting 50 percent plus one in the popular vote means that candidate's Electors are the ones who will cast presidential ballots. While this has been traditional, some states have passed laws to require Electors to adhere to the results of the popular vote to ensure that the will of the people is not thwarted. Two states, Nebraska and Maine, award electors on a proportional basis. If a candidate wins the popular vote in a particular Congressional district, that candidate wins the electoral vote assigned to that district.

"Faithless" Electors have not been an significant issue in presidential selection since 1876, so the system has functioned essentially as designed since then. Still, there are calls every four years for the Electoral College to be signficantly reformed, or even abolished in favor of direct election by popular vote.

One reform some have called for would replace the 48-state "winner take all" Elector system with the proportional assignment found in Nebraska and Maine. Proponents of this change say this would ensure that the people who cast ballots for either major party candidate would see their votes reflected in the Electoral College. As it stands now, people who voted for the candidate who only reaches 49 percent are shut out. Those proponents also say that proportional assignment would help to ensure that candidates reach out to all of the 50 states, and not just those with the largest number of Electors.

There are others who say that the entire Electoral College process must be discarded; that only direct election by popular vote is democratic. On the other side of that contention is the position that under direct national election, candidates would concentrate their campaigning and organizing in major population centers such as New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles, and effectively abandon low-population areas and states except through TV and other media saturation.

But would the major parties be willing to change? Many political observers don't think so. They point to the Republican victory in 2000, taking the state of Florida by the slimmest of margins, and say that there is no reason for that party, or either party, to work under a different system.


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