Come Tuesday night, those unfamiliar with how the president is elected will likely scratch their heads over the seemingly-arbitrary goal of 270 electoral votes needed for a candidate to be elected. Never fear — this is the Electoral College at work.
The Electoral College, simply put, is the group of stand-ins we choose to actually cast the true votes for resident and vice president. Back in the 1780s, the Founding fathers, Fearing that we masses would choose an unqualified president, developed a work-around: each state would designate a number of august and civic-minded individuals, equal in number of its Congressional delegation (House and Senate combined), who would convene every four years to cast their ballots for president. If any candidate won a majority of these votes, he or she would be elected; otherwise it would be sent to the House of Representatives, where the delegation from each state would cast a single vote, and, when a majority of states agreed, the president would be chosen. Currently, there are 535 Representatives and Senators, and since 1961, Washington, DC has had 3 electoral votes, bringing the total to 538. The winning majority is therefore 270.
So why do you get to vote at all? Thank your state legislature, which the Constitution left to “appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” the electors. Every state has a system by which a popular vote decides on the make-up of its Electoral College delegation, and with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, when a particular party wins a state, all of that state's electoral votes are cast by members of that party who have pledged to vote for the party's nominee. This pledge is no small matter, since more than half of the states have laws punishing electors who vote against their pledges, and over the past 100 years, there have been only 9 so-called “faithless” electors.
The way the Electoral College works, as many will point out, has two major flaws, both of which stem from the popular notion that individuals' votes should carry equal weight. The fact of the matter is that in this system, they just don't. In states with smaller populations, such as Wyoming and Delaware, there is a small population per electoral vote, relative to states like Texas, Pennsylvania, or Ohio. The second issue is that, especially in swing states, each state's electoral delegation rarely mirrors the true opinion of that state's population. Take my home state of Pennsylvania, whose and population and Congressional delegation are made up of the far right, far left, and centrists, yet in both 2004 and 2008, we gave a unanimous, fat stack of electoral votes to the Democratic candidate
However, with rare exception, when the Electoral College does cast its ballots, it has traditionally reflected the winner of the popular vote. Only four times (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000) has the nation-wide winner of the popular vote not been elected president. I'm not happy that it's possible for the popular winner to not be elected, but the fact that it's happened so rarely is evidence that the system generally works. Our country is, luckily, large enough and diverse enough that states tend to offset each other — Democratic strongholds are balanced out by Republican bastions, and the candidates end up spending all their time in states like Ohio and Florida where the popular vote is extremely close.
Could shifts in population or political alignments drastically skew the Electoral College? It's certainly possible. But I'm willing to bet that if it did, we really would see widespread shifts at the state level to change how electors are allocated to each candidate, perhaps on a by-Congressional-district model like they use in Nebraska and Maine. In the meantime, sorry swing states, you're stuck with all those ads.