Many Americans don’t really know how their president is elected. Many don’t even know that they don’t directly vote for the president. It may be surprising to some, but that process falls to the electors of the Electoral College, not the people of the United States.
When an American votes, they are actually voting for electors who will then go on to cast votes to decide the next president. Electors are pledged to vote for a particular candidate based on the outcome of the popular vote in their given state. In every state except for Maine and Nebraska, all the electors of the state are pledged to the winner of the statewide popular vote. In Maine and Nebraska, electors are pledged via the congressional district method. This method pledges one elector per congressional district on the basis of the district’s popular vote and pledges an additional two electors per district on the basis of the statewide popular vote.
Not all states have the same amount of electors. The number of electors a state has is the same number as the number of members of Congress that represent the state. The District of Columbia, while not represented in Congress, still votes in presidential elections and is allotted the same number of electors as the state with the smallest population. The Electors themselves are usually important or loyal political party officials and members. Electors are not required by federal law to vote in line with their official pledge, and only 29 states actually have laws requiring electors to vote as they have pledged. However, electors rarely vote against their pledge, and even when they do, they usually have little to no impact on the overall election. The only election ever really affected by electors breaking their pledge was the election of 1836. While the election for Vice President was forced to be decided by the Senate due to electors breaking their pledge, the Senate still chose the candidate that the electors had unfaithfully voted against, thus causing the unfaithful electors to have no real impact on the election.
While this system may seem unimportant, it has had a major impact on American history and present day politics. There have been four elections where the candidate that won the Electoral College vote, and thus the election, did not win the total popular vote. This most recently happened in the 2000 election. Many feel that the person who wins the popular vote, not the electoral vote, should win the overall election, and many feel that using the electoral vote instead of the popular vote is undemocratic.
In order to be an informed voter, one must understand how the overall presidential election process works and how their vote factors into it. This complex process seemingly mystifies voters every election cycle and as a result, voters are often confused by the strategies of campaigns and the outcomes of elections. However, now that you have a better understanding of America’s election process, you can better comprehend what exactly is going on during a presidential election and why campaigns decide to act the way they do.