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
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
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
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