The American Electoral system is often confusing to its own citizens and downright mystifying to many others. For those of us, like Canadians, who actively participate in an electoral process based on a Westminster model, the American system seems decidedly complex and actually designed to blunt the full expression of the democratic will of the people.
We are used to General Elections in which all members of the House of Commons become unemployed as they seek re-election for their jobs. Since we do not have a complete separation of the Executive leadership from the Legislative branch of government like the US, our Prime Minister, who is a sitting M.P., must pay dual attention to first ensuring re-election in their own riding at the same time as being the face for the political party they lead. We have no equivalent to a long drawn-out nomination race for the highest office in the land. What we do share in common is a “winner-take-all” reward for victory. See my earlier post http://paulswhyte.com/politics-matters/pick-me-as-your-presidential-candidate.
For all the cries of ‘democratic deficit’ in our system, we do not have a structural institution embedded in the Constitution whose sole raison d’être is to isolate the selection of the Executive leader from the very populace they will lead. In the US, the Electoral College is precisely that body.
American Presidents are not directly elected via the national popular vote from the citizenry. Instead, through this legacy institution, the Founding Fathers, originally sought to ensure that the nation’s elite, and not the people, would make this selection. However, it is important to note that since 1828 the actual practice of these electors has been to defer to popular majorities as expressed in the state’s popular vote.
The Electoral College works today as follows:
- each state has as many electoral votes as it has U.S. senators and representatives [minimum would be 3; California has 55]
- the state parties select these slates of electors typically as a reward for service to the party
- 48 out of 50 states employ a “winner-take-all” system whereby the electors are awarded to the presidential candidate who wins the most votes statewide
- there are a total of 538 electoral votes [winning requires a minimum of 270]
- in December immediately following the November election, electors meet in their states and then mail in their votes to the sitting vice president who will announce the results in the new congressional session opening in January
There are 2 important influences that the Electoral College has on the presidential election cycle. It causes a bias in both the electoral process itself and significantly affects the campaign strategy of candidates.
- because all states, regardless of population, have 2 senators and must have 1 representative, the less populated states are actually overrepresented [G.W. Bush won more of these states in 2000 than A. Gore who won the overall popular vote]
- campaign strategies now demand a disproportionate attention and effort on winning those small number of crucial ‘swing states’ often referred to as ‘battleground states’.
Not unlike the recent calls to change the electoral system in Canada, there are those voices critical of the role and significance that the Electoral College plays in presidential elections. It remains to be seen in either jurisdiction whether there is sufficient traction amongst voters, not simply their representatives, to embrace alternate models.