Every four years voters are under the impression that they’re electing a president. That couldn’t be more off the mark, actually.
When a voter punches the ballot to vote for president this November, they’re actually voting for an individual that they’ve probably never heard of — some loyal party boss, state level legislator, or a longtime party benefactor.
These people are Electors, and once they’re selected on Election day, they’ll plan for a closed-door meeting in Washington to cast the real ballots for the president and vice President.
Let’s back up a bit.
The number of electoral votes a state is assigned is the total size of their delegation to Congress — two Senators plus the number of House representatives they have.
Every 10 years, states are assigned the number of House seats they’ll be apportioned in Congress based upon population changes measured in the U.S. Census. States that lose population to a significant degree lose seats in the House, and states that have gained population acquire them.
Once states are informed of this number, they start redistricting, redrawing their congressional districts to respond to changes in the electoral map. The latest census in 2010 means that this election map is different than the one in 2008.
So, for example, California has 55 electoral votes because it has two senators and 53 congressional representatives, while Wyoming has 3 electoral votes because it has two senators and one representative.
The District of Columbia gets the same number of electoral votes as the smallest state, in this case 3.
This gives a grand total of 538 electoral votes to go around, and a presidential ticket must win an outright majority of them — 270 — to win.
Most states operate on a “Winner Take All” system, where whoever gets the most votes in the state gets all of the electoral votes.
Two states — Maine and Nebraska — have a more interesting system. In each state, whichever candidate wins a majority in the whole state gets two electoral votes (the ones that correspond to the Senators.) The remaining electoral votes — each of which corresponds to a congressional representative — go to a candidate based on how each district votes. Therefore, if Romney wins a majority in Nebraska but Obama has a majority in the second Congressional district, Obama gets one electoral vote and Romney gets the remaining four.
Once selected, the 538 Electors, none of whom hold federal office, make their way to Washington, and on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, they cast a secret ballot for the presidency.
On January 6, the new Congress convenes to hear the results and certify them.
If nobody has won a majority of the votes, Congress votes by delegation. Each state gets one vote, i.e. California’s 53 Representatives gather and decide which candidate gets their one vote, and Wyoming’s solitary representative gives his state’s vote to a candidate. Whichever gets 26 or more votes is sworn in as President on the 20th of January.
Why is this so complicated? It makes sense, really. The President wasn’t actually intended to be the voice of the people — that’s why the United States has Congress. Instead, the President was expected to lead a federation of independent states, so the goal of the system is to emphasise the role of the individual constituent states over the choice of the voter.
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