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Scott Burton Explains the Electoral College System

September 30th, 2007

Although many people like to think of the United States as a “democracy”, the American political system has never been truly democratic. One important example of this is the electoral college system, where it is possible for candidates to win elections even though they were not really elected by the majority of the people. This article by Scott Burton, who was an independent candidate for U.S. Congress in 2006, provides a good overview of the electoral college system, explains why it is flawed, and suggests some possible reforms that would make the system more accurately reflect the intent of the voting public.


The Electoral System as it stands today is an extremely important element of the United States political system which is sadly misunderstood by many. First, each state has as many votes in the electoral college as they have seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate combined. The current numbers require that a candidate receive 270 votes in the electoral college to become president.

As a general rule, each state operates under a ‘Winner Take All’ system. For example, Oklahoma has 7 electoral votes. In a Presidential Race, Candidate A received 53% of the popular vote in the state (actual votes cast by registered voters), and Candidate B receives 47% of the popular vote. This state has only a 6% difference between the two candidates. Under the ‘Winner Take All’ system, all 7 of Oklahoma’s votes are awarded to the candidate who received the majority of the popular vote.

In other words, while 47% of Oklahoma’s voters favored candidate B, their votes will not help their chosen candidate reach the White House. In some cases, it has been possible for a slight victory in the nationwide popular vote to be reflected by a loss in the electoral vote.

George W. Bush in 2000 received 50,460,110 votes, while Al Gore received 51,003,926. By popular vote, Al Gore should have been elected. However, in the electoral vote George Bush received 271 votes versus Al Gore’s 266.

To further complicate the matter, the Electors (those who actually cast the votes ‘won’ have the ability to further slant the election, as was demonstrated when one of the electors abstained from voting for Al Gore when the electoral college voted.

It is rare for a president to be elected without winning the popular vote, but it has happened previously. For example, in 1888 Grover Cleveland received approximately 0.8% more of the popular vote than did Benjamin Harrison, yet Harrison received almost 28% more of the electoral votes and won the election.

As long as the Electors are not bound to cast the vote their respective territory voted for, what is the point of an Electoral College? Some have argued that it would be better to do away with the electoral system altogether, and utilize the popular vote directly in determining the election of a president. While this idea has its merits, there are logistical issues to contend with.

As long as there is no uniform electoral process nationwide, moving to a pure popular vote election would be inviting even more challenges, lawsuits and claims of improper procedures. Remember the infamous hanging chads dispute in Florida? Imagine such a dispute encompassing several states because each state uses a slightly different method to identify and/or count votes.

Possible options to better reflect the popular vote in elections include:

* Restructuring the Electoral College
* Nationally Standardized Voting

Restructuring the Electoral College

First, the popular vote an elector represents must be honored. The Elector must be required to cast his/her vote in accordance with the expressed will of those he/she represents. This means unless a district abstained from voting, the elector must cast his/her vote.

Second, instead of the winner take all system which is in wide use, a more representative vote allocation would be voting by congressional district, where the winner of a given district will receive that district’s electoral vote. The senatoral votes would go to the candidate who received in excess of 2/3 of the statewide popular vote, or split between the two candidates who received the highest percentages of the popular vote.

Nationally Standardized Voting

In Florida, punched out chads are used to identify what a voter intended. In Oklahoma a penned line is drawn to complete an arrow identifying the candidate or answer the voter intended. The means used nationwide are varied. A punched chad, as we have seen, can be argued over when improperly punched. A black line drawn to complete an arrow is very decisive.

If the ballot has any irregularities, such as an arrow that isn’t clear, or is drawn crossing between candidates, the poll equipment rejects the ballot, and the voter knows immediately that there was a problem, and a poll worker can help to address the issue. This helps to ensure that every voter delivers the vote he or she intended, leaving little, if any, room for disputes over the voter’s intent.



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