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Direct Election of the President

(The Electoral College)

Loud griping and bellowing by the politicos has found it’s way into the press since the presidential election of 2000 wherein George W. Bush defeated Al Gore, although Gore received 500,000 more popular votes than Bush.


In addition to the snafu in Florida over voting machine irregularities, the Democrats were screaming, “We wuz robbed!”  I’m sure if the Republicans had lost the election but won the popular vote, we would have heard similar cries of anguish. Numerous articles and white papers have been written since that time both supporting and denying the Democrats’ position that the Republicans manipulated the Florida voters, caused invalid vote counts, and raised mayhem in heavily Democratic strongholds. Much evidence has been uncovered to both support and deny many of their claims. In essence, because of all of the problems in the state, the electoral votes, which would have given Al Gore the presidency, went to George Bush instead.


If you look at the traditional “blue and red” map (often referred to as the Electoral map) denoting the distribution of Republican and Democratic strongholds, it becomes very obvious that the Democrats strength is in the metropolitan areas of the larger states like California, New York and New Jersey, while the Republicans control the Midwest and much of the west.

How is the President Elected?

The president and vice-president are not elected directly by the simple method of who collects the most popular votes. No, the Electoral College in each state determines the winner. Each state is allocated a number of votes equal to their number of senators and representatives. After Gore lost the election in 2000, a major effort was undertaken by the Democrats, who were furious over the election results, to eliminate the Electoral College but cooler heads prevailed, at least temporarily. However, periodically, the issue raises it’s ugly head in the press in articles by die-hard politicians, so the purpose of this chapter is to compare the pros and cons of the electoral process versus direct election of the president.


It requires a minimum of 270 electoral votes to elect the president. The final result in 2000 was Bush’s 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266 electoral votes. After the 2000 census (which was tabulated after the election), the same election would have resulted in a score of 278-260 due to a shifting of population and electoral votes. Before we take a hard look at the fairness of this method of election, let’s first take a brief look at the Electoral College process.

Why an Electoral College?

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when most of our current-day laws were being hotly debated and eventually enacted, a firestorm brewed over how to elect the president. Some delegates argued that a direct election of the president would favor the most populous states, especially a “favored son” candidate, and wondered aloud if the public would have sufficient knowledge of the candidates and issues to be entrusted with that critical decision. Other delegates argued that the president should be elected by the legislature. This idea was quickly discarded as the argument was advanced that the president would owe his or her allegiance to the legislature when running for re-election, and not serve the people, his or her primary role. The final decision, Article II of the Constitution, produced a compromise to have electors from each state elect the president. This article was subsequently modified by the XII, XX and XXIII Amendments to clarify the specific mechanics of the process.


There have been a number of presidential elections down through the years that have tested the wisdom of that compromise including Jefferson in 1800, John Quincy Adams in 1824, and the 1876 election putting Rutherford Hayes in the White House. The close fight between Gore and Bush in 2000 was not the first occurrence of a candidate winning the popular vote and losing the election. In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Democrat Grover Cleveland but won by a hair in the Electoral College.

How Does the Electoral College Work?

·          Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of senators (always 2) plus the number of its representatives in the House of Representatives. There are always 2 senators from each state while representation in the House is based on the population of the states (depending on the most current census). The Founding Fathers felt that this was the fairest way to achieve the best balance thereby creating the Senate and House of Representatives.

·          The political parties in each state submit a list of individuals pledged to their candidate for president to the state’s chief election official, after major political parties hold their conventions and caucuses to determine who will represent that party. Independent and third parties in theory simply submit the name of their candidate.

Now here’s where it gets really dicey. Depending on individual state laws, third party and independent candidates generally follow different rules. This is where these people are not only harassed by the Republican and Democratic machines but as well by the administrators who of course owe their allegiance to the party in power. These election administrators find pathetic reasons for rejecting a candidate’s petition (especially Ralph Nader in 2004 ) including the use of improper paper. Over the years, numerous horror stories have erupted in the news regarding independents forlorn attempts to try and get their names on the state’s ballot.

·          Since electoral votes are based on the state’s population, California (the largest state) has 47 electoral votes, while Wyoming (the smallest state) has 3 electoral votes, since the state is comprised of two senators and one representative.

·          On the Tuesday following the first Monday in November every four years the people cast their votes representing their choice for president and vice-president. When you vote, in actuality, you are casting your vote for the party slate of Electors, as opposed to actually voting for the candidate of your choice. If you carefully read the fine print, the phrase, “Electors for,” appears on the ballot in most states.

One of the most frustrating elements of the election process is why do the TV networks and radio stations not only broadcast the election results as voters are still voting out west, but predict the winners before the polls are closed?  This smacks of irresponsible journalism because each network wants to be the first to call the winner. In the presidential election of 2004, a number of networks stated that Al Gore had won the Florida election even though Florida spans two time zones, causing many people to stay at home and not vote, which might have significantly altered the election results in that very close race.

·          Whichever party slate wins the most popular votes in that state becomes that state’s electors. In effect this means that whichever presidential ticket receives the most votes gets the state’s electors. However, there are two notable exceptions to this process. In Maine and Nebraska, two electors are chosen by the statewide popular vote while the balance of the electoral votes are determined by the popular vote in each congressional district within the state. Of interest, if Maine or Nebraska were large states, this could have a significant bearing on an election.

·          In December, each state’s electors meet in their state capitals to cast their votes. One vote is cast for the president and one for the vice-president. According to Federal law, one of their votes must be for a person outside of the state to prevent unanimous voting for a “favorite son” of the state.

·          The electoral votes are sealed and delivered to the President of the Senate, who on January 6th of the following year unseals the votes and reads them before both houses of Congress.

·          Here’s where it gets really interesting. The candidate for president and vice-president who has the most electoral votes is declared the winner, provided that the candidate has an ABSOLUTE MAJORITY of the votes cast. This means that if one major candidate has 47% of the electoral votes and the other major candidate has 45% of the electoral votes, and a third party candidate has 8%, then a winner is not declared. “Isn’t this a real world possibility?” you might ask. Yes, it is provided that one of the minor candidates, like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, carried an entire state. Even if one of these independents were able to capture 20% of the popular vote throughout the country, as long as they did not win a state outright, it would have no bearing on the election outcome.

I’m sure at this point in this explanation, you’re asking yourself how can a winner be declared hours after the polls are closed if the electoral votes aren’t tabulated until the following year?  Since the electors are bound to the results of the popular vote in their state, the results of the elector’s votes, in theory, are a foregone conclusion. What would happen if a bunch of electors rebelled at this notion?  A number of movies have been made asking this very question. Well then, if there has never been a problem, why do we need electors at all? Your questions will be answered in the next section of this chapter.

·          In the event that a one of the candidates did not receive the aforementioned majority, the U. S. House of Representatives selects the president and vice-president from the top three contenders with each state casting one vote, and again with an absolute majority of state’s votes being required for a winner to be declared. In this scenario, it sure seems a reasonable expectation that whichever party controls the House obviously elects the president.

·          If the House can’t determine a winner, then the U. S. Senate determines the winner from the top two candidates. Now isn’t that little gem interesting. That process will definitely freeze out any independent candidates unless the voting habits of Americans change drastically over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. On January 20th, the elected president and vice-president are sworn into office.

Pros and Cons of Direct Election of the President

Positive Aspects of Direct Election of the President

·          Too Much TV Influence: In a direct elect system, intrusions by the media (TV and radio) will likely offer little influence over the voter’s choices. With the current electoral system, all of the news outlets are constantly blasting away with voter tallies and predicting winners long before the polls close, causing people to stay at home because they feel that their vote is insignificant. Of course, since the networks act so irresponsibly, perhaps if legislation was passed outlawing election results to be broadcast until the following day would remedy that problem, but this action would also violate about four or five articles of the Constitution, including some minor infractions about impeding free press and speech. This would not be a very good idea.

·          Small States Disproportionately Favored: The Electoral College favors the smallest states wherein they automatically qualify for at least 3 votes. Take the case of Wyoming, which has 3 votes, versus California, which has 47 votes, although California’s population is over 70 times larger than Wyoming’s population. This feature, whether you consider it positive or negative, was designed so small states are not overwhelmed by the larger states.

·          Many Issues of Too Much Importance: Various people have argued that the swing states like Nevada, with the importance of the Yucca Mountain hazardous waste disposal election issue, take on a disproportionate value with the electoral system. On the opposite side of the coin, it can be argued that under a direct election system, Nevada, with 2.2 million residents, could become a wasteland to the indifferent candidates, and that under the electoral system at least Nevada’s voice is heard.

·          Tie-Breaker Rules Unfavorable: In the event of a tie between two candidates (269-269) or the situation occurs wherein one candidate does not win a majority, the vote is thrown into the House of Representatives, where each state gets one vote to elect. This disproportional balance of power only makes Montana’s vote worth far more than it should considering the stakes.

·          Electoral Votes Lumped Together: In the larger states, such as California, a very close margin of victory still allocates all of the electoral votes to one candidate, disproportional to the way in which people voted.

·          True Democratic Values: Direct election is more consistent with the meaning of democracy to most Americans, who are conditioned to support the person who has received the majority of votes.

·          Swing State’s Focus: The electoral system causes the candidates to heavily weigh their attention to the swing states that can “make or break” their election. States that they know they will win or lose receive scant attention.

·          Electoral System Discourages Third Party Candidates:  Since the candidate who wins a state takes all of the electoral votes, even if a third party candidate achieves 20 or 30% of the popular vote, it will all be for naught if that is not the highest percentage of all candidates, effectively negating the trust the people have shown in that candidate.

Negative Aspects of Direct Election of the President

·          Voter Fraud: With a direct election of the president, the possibility of voter fraud becomes paramount, in that a state would not be content to simply show a simple majority of Democratic or Republican or whatever votes (once independent parties gather steam). Majority fraud would be difficult to detect since the party in power would be responsible to maintain integrity – something akin to letting the fox manage the hen house.

·          Too Many Candidates: With direct election in the future, you may have 10 or 20 candidates running for president, wherein the winning candidate might capture 20 to 25% of the popular vote. Considering the large percentage of the population that chooses not to vote, the winning candidate may realistically be placed in office with the backing of 10 to 20% of the possible voters, a frightening prospect for sure.

·          Who Else Uses Direct Election?: Very few democracies have a direct elect presidential system. Only Finland, Russia and France have had direct election, with France abolishing direct election in 1962, and replacing it with a complicated system that requires potential candidates to obtain signatures from 500 elected officials plus other complex rules. The negative side of direct election showed its ugly side in Russia when Boris Yeltsin was elected even though 65% of the citizens voted against him. Of course, we also must recognize that Russia is one of the newest democracies on the planet, and strange sightings in that country are the norm.

·          Campaigning in Only the Largest States:  With direct election, candidates would focus all of their attention in the largest states (California, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, etc.) and bypass the scrubs of the smaller states. Therefore, their campaign rhetoric and slogans would be designed to offer voters in these few states the best deal for their money (excuse me, their vote).

Which Presidential Election Method Is Better?

You can make your own decision regarding whether the electoral system or the direct election of the president is a preferable method. However, there are two major points that weigh very heavily in any decision-making process to revamp this system:

1.      The Founding Fathers, who showed remarkable wisdom over 200 years ago, considered all points of view before arriving at their decision.

2.      In order to change the process, it will require an amendment to the Constitution, which requires the approval of 2/3 of the states. However, in reality, this “ain’t gonna happen” because the smaller states will never agree to relinquish their power, unless of course the power mad politicians somehow find a way to modify the Constitution to relinquish the 2/3 majority requirement without obtaining ratification by the same 2/3 of the states. Therefore, the above exercise in democracy only increased your knowledge of American politics, so it’s all a moot point.


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