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Electoral College Plays Key Role in Presidential Election

November 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: The magic number is 270, but 270 whats? The system of choosing the president is as old as the country itself, and yet remains somewhat mysterious and controversial for many Americans.

Here for an electoral college primer is John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and author of “After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College.” Welcome, John. To start very simply, tell us how is the number of electoral votes for each state determined?

JOHN FORTIER: Each state has the number of electors that they have representatives in Congress. Two senators plus the number of representatives they have in the House of Representatives. Wyoming, our smallest state, two senators and one rep, three electoral votes; California, our largest state, has 55. That’s two senators and 53 reps. Do you add them together then you have three more from the District of Columbia who participates in the presidential election.

JEFFREY BROWN: So much of it depends on population, clearly. But for some small states or thinly populated states, they get slightly more representation.

JOHN FORTIER: It’s roughly based on population but there’s an overrepresentation of small states, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, total number of electoral votes 538. And thus this magic number?

JOHN FORTIER: 270, the majority you need to be elected president of the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the theory behind it? I said this has been around since the country began. What was the idea of the founders?

JOHN FORTIER: Well, in one way that was compromise that we saw in other parts of our government between small states who wanted equal representation and large states who wanted representation by population. We see that in the Senate and the House and the Electoral College.

The other thought was that we would be able to elect someone with a national presence. One electoral vote might be cast for a local member but the second one would be cast for a George Washington or someone who could cut across state bounds. And today we see that. You have to win states around the country, not just in one region to become president.

JEFFREY BROWN: In most states, it is a winner take all. Whoever gets the majority of votes gets all of the electoral votes — but not in two states and maybe not in a third after tonight. Tell us about that.

JOHN FORTIER: Right. States have a lot of leeway how they appoint electors, but 48 of them have a winner take all system. You win by one vote in California and you get all the electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska have district systems where you might win some by winning the state but others by winning in the congressional districts.

They have never split their votes but it’s possible and finally the controversial Colorado initiative which is to switch to a proportional system. Colorado has nine electoral votes.

Currently you would have a 9-0 split in the winner take all system but they have an initiative on the ballot, on the same ballot as the presidential election to change it to proportional where you might have a 5-4 split where the winner, Bush, maybe, likely gets 5 and the Kerry would get four.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read, tell me if I’m right, if that had been in place in 2000 than al Gore would have been president.

JOHN FORTIER: Absolutely. Bush won 271 electoral votes last time, just barely over the majority hump and Al Gore might have been the president if that system had been in place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has there before been a case where the state’s electoral votes were split?

JOHN FORTIER: Yes, early on we had a number of states doing that. We had states appointing it directly with our state legislatures. We have a variety of methods. But we moved pretty quickly to a winner take all popular vote system in almost all the states.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Now, when each of us votes, we’re actually voting for electors, even if we think we’re voting for George Bush or John Kerry, correct?


JEFFREY BROWN: Who are these people and who do they do?

JOHN FORTIER: There’s a slate of electors for Bush and Kerry for each state. They’re typically party loyalists picked by the party convention or committee. Not very well known. Occasionally they appear on the ballot in some states.

Ultimately those slats are appointed based on who win wins the popular vote in the state. In December they cast their votes and if you get to 270 when Congress counts them in January, off new president Jan. 20.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are they bound by their vote?

JOHN FORTIER: They’re pledged and some states try to bind them by law.

JEFFREY BROWN: I ask this because, of course, there’s one — we both were talking about. There’s one West Virginian who said he will not vote for the president.

JOHN FORTIER: He might not. He hasn’t made up his mind. But they’re bound. In some states there are penalties but they’re modest penalties, a thousand dollars.

So eight times over the last 60 years or so we’ve had an individual cast a vote in a way that he or she was not supposed to. It’s never affected an election but you can imagine if we were sitting at 269,-269 and this Bush elector in West Virginia strayed, it would cause quite a commotion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s where I wanted to go next because half of 538 is 269. There are some scenarios where there is a potential tie. What happens in a tie?

JOHN FORTIER: In a tie, no one has an absolute majority so it goes to the Congress to decide. The House of Representatives picks the president, it picks it by state delegations. You need 26 state delegations, usually of the same party, and the Senate picks the vice president. In theory, if the Democrats were to take the Senate, you might end up with a Bush-Edwards presidency.

JEFFREY BROWN: That would be interesting, John Fortier, thank you very much.

JOHN FORTIER: Thank you.