Rutgers professor explains process behind electoral college


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Photo by Chloe Coffman |

Photo Illustration | The electoral college was created by the founding fathers near the end of the 18th century to elect America’s president.


Voting may seem like a simple concept, but actually electing a president is more complicated than tallying the popular vote.

America's electoral college was created by the framers of the Constitution toward the end of the 18th century, said John Glascock, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Political Science. 

"It’s been there ever since. And it is there largely because (they) didn’t trust direct democracy,” Glascock said. 

One of the reasons the electoral college was created was to separate the president from the people, said Ross Baker, distinguished professor in the department of Political Science. 

“There are many undemocratic features of the U.S. Constitution," Baker said. "We don’t elect our president by popular vote. And it’s a reality in which 51 percent of the popular vote doesn’t get you the presidency. It’s gotta be enough votes to get you 270 electoral votes. That’s the magic number." 

Early on, electors were chosen based on their states and how elite they were as members of the society, which is slightly different than nowadays, Glascock said.

“You would not recognize the name of any of the electors in New Jersey. They are basically party people. And being an elector is kind of an honor that’s given to people who work for the party. But generally speaking, these are virtually unknown people,” Baker said.

Each state has a different number of electors, which is determined by both inhabitants and representation, Glascock said. The number of electors are equal to its representation in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

"For instance, New Jersey has 14 electors. That’s because we have two senators and 12 members of the House of Representatives. And each state works similarly depending on its population," he said. 

Although winning the majority of electoral votes in a state often means receiving all of the electoral votes from that state in the presidential election, this is not always the case, Baker said.

“Maine and Nebraska split their electoral college vote up. They have a method by which they use congressional districts to distribute electors. In the other 48 states, if I won 51 percent of the electors, I wouldn’t get 51 percent of the electors. I would get 100 percent of the electors,” Glascock said.

The electoral college is vital to America's voting system and prevents any sort of misrepresentation, said Matthew Lee, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. 

The process behind the electoral college does not sound complicated, he said. 

"I think there’s definitely a reason that it’s been there. It’s like a safeguard against potential bad things that can happen when the popular vote doesn’t really represent the best interest of the nation,” Lee said.

But there are some disadvantages to the electoral college, Glascock said.

The electoral college is an intermediate step, he said. Winning the popular vote does not necessarily mean winning the election.

"It is usually just ceremonial. But sometimes it can be quite undemocratic, as it was in the year 2000. I was surprised by how accepting people were of the outcome,” Glascock said.

But every individual has the opportunity to change the world they live in for the better or for the worse by taking action, Lee said.

“Yes, it’s true that everyone is just one number. So everyone’s vote matters, and it’s everyone’s duty to vote and represent what they want to happen in the country,” Lee said.

Only a few votes can serve as tipping points in an election, Baker said, even though the popular vote does not directly rule elections.

A person’s vote always counts, and presidential elections are can be very close, Baker said.

"Somebody winning the presidential election by 53-48 is quite common. Fifty-three (percent) is practically a blow away,” he said. 

A singular vote does not matter, Glascock said, but like Lee, thinks it is his duty to vote.

“It is rare that even a local election is going to be decided by one or five votes," he said. "A lot of countries in fact require by law that people vote. We don’t think that’s an appropriate society. But citizens sort of have an obligation to their country." 

If a person does not know who to vote for, they should start researching now and try to see who they most agree with and believe in, Lee said.

“If someone’s unsure of whether they should vote, then they probably shouldn’t vote," Lee said. "But at the same time, they should be educated enough on the topic because it is their country, and they should be aware (of) these issues and try to find a candidate that aligns with their interests." 

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Nicole Osztrogonacz is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in English. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Find her on Twitter @nikki_osz for more.


Nicole Osztrogonacz

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