As Americans across the country step into the ballot booths, news organizations are gearing up to feature exit polls and other forecasts of the popular vote. But the election will truly be decided by the Electoral College — a body that doesn't get as much coverage in the media. Who are the electors? How do they vote? People are confused about the Electoral College, and rightly so — it's an old institution that isn't exactly transparent. While results begin to pour in, here are a few facts about the Electoral College to help you understand how the next president will be chosen.
It's not actually a college. This one is a little dumb, but I used to wonder. There is no actual place where the Electoral College is. Rather, the college is a body of electors (not elected officials, because no one who holds federal office may be an elector, but rather independently chosen individuals) that convenes every four years to cast their vote for president. They never actually get together as one big group. In total, there are 538 members of the college; this number represents the total amount of Congressmen-and-women from all 50 states, plus three representatives from D.C..
They don't actually get to really pick for themselves. And they don't even vote today. Because electors are specifically chosen by the political parties (in most states), they are highly loyal to their party, and are expected to vote for that party's candidate. Essentially they have already pledged their vote to the candidate. Though they aren't necessarily obligated to do so, a member of the College who doesn't vote as appointed is called a "faithless elector." Faithless electors may be punished by law in 24 states, but only after they have already voted. States such as Michigan and Minnesota actually invalidate the votes of faithless electors. However, no faithless elector has ever influenced a Presidential election.
Faithless or not, the electoral college casts its votes on the Monday following the second Wednesday in December (weird, huh?). It's strange to think that more than a month after most people consider the president to be officially "chosen" is actually when the Electoral College decides on the president and vice president.
So does my vote even matter? Yes, it does! States assign electors based on the popular vote, and in all states except for Maine and Nebraska (who may split their votes district-to-district), the winner takes all. This is why swing states are able to swing, and are such a big deal — if a state like Ohio has even a slight majority vote for Obama or Romney, the winning candidate receives all of the state's electors.
Why do we have the Electoral College? The College was designed by the founding fathers as a compromise between large and small states. Many today, though, find the college to be undemocratic. The system places a large amount of power in the hands of the most populous states, but also causes the votes of smaller states, where the ratio of voters to electors is lower, to count more. Even though more than 200 years have passed since the Electoral College was created, it is still an important factor in American politics. Presidential historian Anthony Bergen concludes that "The Electoral College, then, is a system for electing a president which gives representation to the people and the states, even if it seems indirect. The Electoral College is probably flawed and it’s totally unexplainable to most people, but it’s the system that has worked for over 200 years and, quite frankly, it’s worked pretty well. I think it accurately represents the will of the country, so I don’t see a need for it to be overhauled or changed. I think that if anyone could have imagined a better, more balanced, more easily understandable system of presidential elections in a federal republic, it would have been the people who invented our federal republic. "
Love it, hate it, don't get it, the Electoral College picks the president, and understanding how it does so is part of being an informed participant in American democracy.