Today, the election to choose the forty-fourth President of the United States was held. You may think that election took place six weeks ago on November 4, but you’re wrong if you do. That was an election to choose the electors. Today, the electors that you* and I chose on November 4 gathered in their respective state capitals and cast actual ballots for President, as set forth in the Constitution. The process is described in the Twelfth Amendment:
The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed … . The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President. … [N]o person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.
In just under half the states, the electors can legally vote for whomever they choose, even though they were elected on slates pledged to either Barack Obama or John McCain. In the other states, there is functionally no penalty for breaking their pledges and voting for whomever they choose. Irregularities in electoral votes turn out to be quite common for a number of reasons, but they have never had an effect on the overall outcome of the election. The result is, it would actually be somewhat unusual if the vote of the electoral college was exactly 365 votes for Obama and Biden and 173 votes for McCain and Palin.
This begs the question of why we have the Electoral College at all. A state gets the same number of votes that it has elected representatives to Congress, which means no state has fewer than three votes. This would seem to transfer disproportionate power in choosing the President to small states. But in practice, candidates seem to devote a substantial amount of attention to the large-vote states and all but ignore the small-vote states, which means that in terms of structuring a platform, Presidential candidates focus on places like Ohio and Florida and New York and California, and for all intents and purposes ignore places like Hawaii, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. Certainly I understand the historical need for the electoral college.
But if we were to amend the Constitution to switch to popular voting, I would expect that functionally the same political results — concerns of places like Florida and California and New York would rise to the top and places like Vermont and Alaska and Idaho would sink to the bottom. States would still be important because they would be the basic units of counting the votes, but we would see secretaries of state certifying popular vote totals to Congress rather than sending the votes of electors.
I have mixed feelings about switching to a popular vote. It is about the only proposal for amending the Constitution pending that I could find palatable, but I frankly do not see the imperative to do it. Even the result of the 2000 election, in which Al Gore got a plurality of the popular vote but was not elected, do not particularly bother me, because that was a very close election anyway. As it turns out, President Bush was not an optimal choice for the job, but I am 1) not convinced that Gore would have been any better, and more to the point 2) unable to blame the Electoral College for the way things turned out under Bush. So if the proposal were to ever be reported out of Congress, I might be able to get behind it and I wouldn’t be upset if it happened. But I don’t see any particular imperative for it. I guess my thinking is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The idea of the electoral college was originally that the electors would gather and identify the best people in the land and choose from among them. But this has, to my recollection, never actually happened. There was a great consensus that the first President should be George Washington and there was some debate about who should be the Vice-President, but old George let it be known that John Adams was his guy and it did, after all, have to be someone from a state other than Virginia. But after that, every President elected has angled for the job in some fashion and established political machinery around the country to support that effort. That’s not a system that’s going anywhere and it’s a system that despite its flaws, serves us well.
* Well, you helped choose them if, like me, you are a U.S. citizen who voted on November 4.