Manhattan Caucus: Understanding the Electoral College

by Sophia Sakellariou and Kyla Guilfoil, Senior Writer & Staff Writer

On election night of 2016, ballots were counted and Hillary Clinton was leading the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. When the Electoral College votes came in and she lost, people wondered: “what happened?” 

“The idea of a national vote is an illusion, we don’t have a national election, we have 50 individual state elections,” Jonathan Keller, an assistant professor of political science at Manhattan College, said. “Trump won enough of those 50 individual state elections to get over 270 [electoral votes].”

The Electoral College dates back to Article 2, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution and ensures that every state has a meaningful voice in the electoral process. It is a group of people appointed by each state who formally elect the president and vice president of the United States.

The Founding Fathers created this body because they didn’t trust the people to make electoral decisions on their own. They wanted the president chosen by what they thought of as “enlightened statesmen” that would elect the best candidate for the nation. 

“The electoral college premised on the same kind of states rights ideas as the Senate, and those were really important parts of the Federalist Compromise that makes the formation of the United States work,” Jordan Pascoe, a professor of philosophy, women and gender studies, and critical race and ethnicity studies, said. 

The Constitution specifies how many electors each state is entitled to have. Since 1964 there have been 538 electors, meaning that a candidate must receive 270 electoral votes to win a majority and in turn, the presidency. 

The number of electors is equal to the total voting membership of the United States Congress — 435 representatives plus 100 senators and 3 electoral votes from the District of Columbia. Each state receives a particular number of electors based on population size. New York has 29 electoral votes and Montana only has 3, even though it is larger on a map, it’s much smaller population accounts for the discrepancy. When the census is conducted every 10 years, some states will gain and others will lose electoral votes based on population shifts. The 2020 census will not have a bearing on the upcoming election, but will in 2024. 

On rare occasions — only 5 out of 58 presidential elections in the history of the U.S .— a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the presidency, as was the case in 2016. This means that the winner may have won and collected their electoral votes by small margins, winning just enough states with just enough electoral votes. The losing candidate may have gained more than 50% of the ballots cast by voters, but failed to gain 270 of the electoral votes. 

This creates an unfair advantage for certain states because the winning candidate could have not received a single vote in 39 states and still win the election because they won the popular vote in the 11 states with the most number of electoral votes. Presidents don’t campaign in all states, rather only “swing states” whose electoral votes can go either way as they are not clear red or blue states. In this election cycle, the swing states include Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin and Iowa. This is significant because if say the Republican party wins the popular vote in Florida, which has 29 electoral votes, all of the electoral votes will go to the Republican candidate. 

This is why many candidates want to win large states such as Texas, Florida and New York because these states have a large amount of electoral votes, totaling 96. If you totaled the 8 states with the smallest number of electoral votes, they would only gain 31 electoral votes. 

“It’s unfair to any state that is not close because there’s no reason to campaign there. What it does is distorts our election,” Keller said. However, he explained that this does present one advantage to the electoral college. 

A large amount of money is spent on politics already and candidates only campaign in a handful of states—those swing states that can be the deciding factor in the election. If the electoral college was not in the picture and candidates had to campaign across the nation — think massive campaign organizations in large states such as California where candidates don’t campaign currently — campaign spending would likely increase by billions of dollars.  

It can also be argued that the electoral college protects small states such as Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island and even geographically large states with a small population such as Wyoming, Alaska and North and South Dakota. A candidate can’t completely ignore small states because in a close election, every electoral vote counts. 

After the results of 2016, many people wonder if they should bother voting. Dr. Keller said that this is a hard question to answer. 

“Even though the popular vote, according to the rules, doesn’t produce the winner, I think it has a kind of moral legitimacy,” Keller said. “It’s a very bad look for the loser of the presidential election to win. No other country in the world has a system that way, it’s not good when that happens. Whatever party you support you should never think that’s a good thing because it makes clear that you have minority and majority presidents.”

He suggests looking to elections at a local level. Congressional races, city-wide races or state races in your area provide opportunities to shift power over time because every vote carries equal weight.   

“Go out and vote. In terms of the electoral college and this election the most you can do is vote.” Joanna Canigiani, a sophomore and president of the Manhattan College Government and Politics club, said. 

Pascoe thinks the electoral college will impact the upcoming election. 

“People in New York, people in California need to vote because it is so critical,” Pascoe said “If we end up with another division between the popular vote and the electoral vote, that gap is as big as it can possibly be. We have to start illustrating the failures of the electoral college.”

To follow predictions on the electoral votes for the upcoming presidential election, check out the interactive map at this link: