Nancy Leifer and Nancy Maxson, co-Presidents of the League of Women Voters Missoula
The United States does not directly elect its President. When we cast our ballot for President, we are actually voting for “electors” and the electors actually vote for president. In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore that “the individual citizen has no constitutional right to vote” for president, because we are electing members of the Electoral College. Montana is allotted three electors who serve in the Electoral College, the same as the number of Senators and Representatives Montana has in Congress. Similarly, other states’ electors are determined by the number of Senators and Representatives from their states.
There are 538 Electoral College votes – one for every Senate seat, House of Representatives seat, and three from the District of Columbia. A simple majority of 538 is 270, the minimum number of electoral votes necessary to win the Presidency.
As we saw in 2016, the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, i.e., the total votes cast in the entire country, doesn’t necessarily win the election. Hilary Clinton received 3 million more individual votes nationally than Donald Trump. In order to win the Presidency, a candidate must get a majority of the Electoral College votes. In most states, the presidential candidate with the most popular votes in that state wins all of the electors from that state.
In Montana, prior to the November 3 election, each political Party (Republican and Democrat) chooses three of its members to serve as electors. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December the electors from the Party whose candidate wins the presidential popular vote in Montana, convene in Helena. This year, that will be on December 14. The electors formally cast their votes using paper ballots for their Party’s Presidential candidate and send the ballots to the U.S. Congress.
During a joint session of the US House and Senate the first week of January, Congress in turn tabulates the votes from all of the electors across the country, presided over by the current Vice-President. Only after all the electors’ votes have been tabulated by Congress is the election of the President completed.
Where did this cumbersome process come from? In 1787, the founding fathers created the Electoral College system as part of the U.S. Constitution. In those days, transportation and communication technology made it impossible for voters in all 13 states to be familiar with the individuals running for President. Although America had won its independence from Great Britain , in 1787 nearly two/thirds of the people in the United States felt we would be better off as a British colony. Having just come through the Revolution, the founders did not want to turn the leadership of the country over to a President who was secretly in favor of British rule.
The Electoral College was designed to prevent a foreign sympathizer from becoming President. The electors would be everyday citizens, not elected politicians. Their identity would be unknown ahead of the election, so they could not be unduly influenced. Electors would travel to Washington, DC at the appointed time to interview the candidates for President and evaluate who would be the best. Electors were not legally bound to honor the outcome of the election in their state, if they suspected a candidate was a foreign agent or for other reasons found a different candidate would be better for the job. Electors would do their duty in choosing a President, then would return to the ranks of everyday citizens.
These days, electors do not travel to Washington to cast their votes. They do not interview candidates and they do not make up their own minds. Electors convene in their state capitols and cast their ballots for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state, with very few exceptions. Some states have “faithless Electors” laws that require the electors to vote according to the popular vote in their state.
In an upcoming column we will discuss how the Electoral College gives more political power to some states, how it effectively focuses the presidential election campaign on just a handful of “swing” states, and how some attempts have been made to change the process.
The League of Women Voters has been registering voters and providing non-partisan voting information for over 100 years. Membership is open to men and women, citizens and non-citizens over the age of 16. For more information about the Missoula League, go to our website: lwvmissoula.org