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Explained: How The Electoral College Works

Poll workers set up voting machines for early voting in Provo, Utah, in 2016.
Poll workers set up voting machines for early voting in Provo, Utah, in 2016.

On Dec. 14, electoral votes for the president of the United States will officially be cast in all 50 states. In normal years, the Electoral College is often considered a formality in the election process for the office of president. According to experts, it is the Electoral College that actually decides who will secure the office, not the voters in the United States.

Eric Douglas spoke with Bradford Deel, a professor of Political Science at the University of Charleston to find out more about the system.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Can you give me a rough explanation of what the Electoral College is?

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University of Charleston
Professor Bradford Deel from the University of Charleston in Charleston, West Virginia.

Deel: Very simply, the Electoral College is how the president is selected. There is a false notion in the minds of most people that they have a right to vote for the president. They don't. You have no constitutional right to cast a vote for president. The Constitution is very clear and it lays out that the Electoral College is how the president is selected. The way the Electoral College functions can vary by state and state legislatures choose how they will select their electors for president.

Douglas: So why was the Electoral College created? What's the history behind it, instead of everyone voting for president?

Deel: You have to understand that prior to the American Civil War, the correct grammar was “the United States are,” or “these United States.” You didn't see very many things that said, “the United States is.” The Civil War really resolved whether or not this was a nation, or whether the union was more like a treaty between countries, like NATO or the European Union. States were really much more powerful than the national government. The presidency was not considered to be an extraordinarily strong position. So, it wasn't something that was considered of national importance. But it was considered crucial to allow the states to have their input in it.

Each state could choose their electors, however they wanted and not all of them used popular vote. It's a function of the power of state legislatures and the relationship of the state to the federal government, that's behind the Electoral College.

Douglas: There are 538 electors in total across the United States. Where does that come from?

Deel: The electors are equal in each state to the number of senators, plus the number of representatives. So West Virginia, for example, gets five electoral votes. We have two senators and three representatives. There are 100 members of the United States Senate and 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Then there's three electors for the District of Columbia. And that's where you get the 538.

Douglas: Run through the process of the Electoral College.

Deel: A lot of what we've seen this time is normal processes that people don't pay attention to. A lot of states allow ballots that come in after Election Day to count. West Virginia does. These are ballots from service members, etcetera, up to about five days after the election. Once you have all the ballots in and all the ballots are counted, they canvass the votes. After the canvass, the results are official. If it's close, candidates can request recounts. In some states, that's automatic. In some states, you have to request it. But at some point, the governor or the secretary of state certifies the election results. In most states, if you're going to challenge election results, you have to do it before the certification. Once the certification has been made, then the states will appoint their electors pursuant to the statute they've got set out within their state laws.

Douglas: In West Virginia, as I understand it, the electors are selected by the state party officials.

Deel: They are selected by the state convention or state party officials. The Democratic Party has selected their slate of electors. The Republican Party has selected their slate of electors. And since the Republican candidate got the most number of votes in West Virginia, it is the republican electors that will meet to cast their vote for president. All five of them, I'm rather certain, will cast their vote for Donald Trump.

Douglas: There have been a few instances, but it's not often, that the electors switch their vote or vote for someone else.

Deel: It's very rare. Thirty-three states require the electors to vote for whoever won the popular vote in the state. Seventeen states don't require that. West Virginia doesn't require it. People selected as electors are typically party officials or they might be a local government official. These are party stalwarts. An elector in West Virginia can theoretically vote for whoever they want to vote for. But the reality is, if you ever did that, that makes you persona non grata, and you ruin your career within that party. So it happens, but it's pretty rare.

Douglas: One of the criticisms we've heard about the Electoral College has been that sometimes the winner of the Electoral College is not the winner of the popular vote.

Deel: The electoral college gives disproportionate influence to states with smaller populations, simply because every state gets two senators. And so West Virginia, with 1.8 million people has two senators. California, with however many million people, has two senators. In New York, there's more people in Brooklyn than in the entire state of West Virginia. And New York has two senators.

So the Electoral College gives disproportionate influence to smaller states. That's why I don't think you're going to see it go away anytime soon. In fact, West Virginia's influence is going to be even more disproportional after the 2020 census, because we're going to lose a representative.

Douglas: The other argument is that at least all the decisions aren't made in New York or, California, Texas or Florida. The smaller states get a say about how things go.

Deel: The argument in favor of the Electoral College is that if you go to just a national popular vote, then a state like West Virginia becomes irrelevant in political campaigning at the presidential level. But here's the reality. West Virginia was irrelevant anyway. For that matter, so is California, right? Donald Trump and Joe Biden spent very little time and effort in California. Why? Because everyone knew Joe Biden was gonna win California. Joe Biden and Donald Trump spent very little effort in West Virginia, because we knew Donald Trump was going to win.

The candidates spent almost all their efforts in roughly 10 states and ignored the other 40. The idea that your state is important because it has a small number of electoral votes compared to the popular vote, I don't think is necessarily a valid argument. The question is whether or not your state is a battleground state. If you go with the national popular vote, at the very least they can't ignore you entirely because every vote matters.

Bradford Deel is a professor and program director for the Political Science and History Program at the University of Charleston in Charleston, West Virginia. He is also a practicing attorney.


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