September 26, 2022

Who Actually Elects the President?

Your vote does not elect the president. In fact, history is filled with instances where the legitimate winner of the popular vote actually lost to his opponent in a presidential race. Citizens actually vote for electors for their state who, in turn, vote for the president.

Our constitution set up a system where each state could select a slate of people who would choose the president, called electors, equal in size to their Congressional delegation. For example, in 2012, Missouri will have 10 people in Congress — 2 senators and 8 representatives — so they will have 10 electors. Although states were free to choose their electors however they wanted, all ended up allowing their citizens to vote for electors.

Each elector has to follow a few rules. They must cast separate votes for President and Vice President and at least one of their votes must be for a person who is not from their state. While electors pledge to cast their votes for a specific candidate, only 29 states actually have laws requiring them to do that and some scholars feel that the state laws are unconstitutional. As such, electors are technically free to vote for whoever they want although, in practice, they very rarely fail to vote for their designated candidate.

Most states operate on a winner-takes-all system where the candidate who gets the most votes ends up with all of the electors. The electors then meet in an electoral college at their state’s capitol on the Monday after December’s second Wednesday to cast their votes. The results of every state’s votes are sealed and sent to the Senate to be opened on January 6.

Due to the winner-takes-all nature of most states’ presidential voting systems, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency while losing the popular vote. This has happened twice – in the 1888 election of Benjamin Harrison and in the 2000 election of George W. Bush. To understand how this can happen, consider the states of New Hampshire and Rhode Island, both of which had 4 electors. Bush won New Hampshire by 7211 votes, but Gore won Rhode Island by 118,953 votes. Although the tally in the Electoral College was a 4-4 tie, the popular vote was a very lopsided 404,114 to 515,856 in Gore’s favor.

When you really think about how our founding fathers designed our electoral system, this outcome is perfectly fair. Ultimately, we do not elect the president. The states each choose electors to elect the president based on our input. Given that our union was originally conceived as a union of states, this system is appropriate.

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