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What Is The Electoral College? Details About The Democrats' New Bill Proposing To Eliminate It

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What Is The Electoral College & How Does It Work? Details About The Democrats' New Bill To Eliminate It From U.S. Presidential Elections

On January 3, 2019, Congress welcomed 111 new elected officials and one of their first goals is to overthrow the electoral college in U.S. presidential elections. 

This new group of senators and representatives is the most diverse yet, as 22 percent of people sworn in on Thursday were people of color, including the first Native American congresswomen and first Muslim congresswomen. It also features the most women elected to Congress yet: 38 percent of elected officials sworn in were women.

Congress has a lot to work on in 2019. The year began nearly two weeks into a government shutdown, leaving agencies, departments, and employees waiting for the legislative and executive branches to work something out so they can start up again.

Many things were on the agenda on Thursday. For Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), it included introducing two bills he hopes to push forward to become Constitutional Amendments. One seeks to limit the presidential pardon power, the other to eliminate the electoral college.

Presidential pardons are straightforward enough. They range from disgraced ex-presidents to turkeys.

The electoral college, on the other hand, is not as easy to understand.

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The electoral college process has become the subject of debate in the last two decades. In July 2018, a study showed that two-thirds of people polled wanted to put an end to the electoral college.

Based on a 2009 study, however, most Americans don’t even know what it is.

The electoral college has been an integral part of American democracy since the U.S Constitution was ratified in 1788. Many people don’t know about it, and a growing number want to get rid of it. What is it, how does it work, and why does it exist?

What is the electoral college?

The electoral college is not a physical place of higher education: it’s a process used in electing the President and Vice President of the United States. The process was established in Article II, Section 1, Clause II. of the Constitution.

The electoral college is also a compromise.

A true democracy calls for the direct election of a leader through citizens of the state. This is known as a “popular vote.” The popular vote, which truly espouses the idea “your vote counts,” is not used in the direct election of the president.

That may not sound right, but America is also not a true democracy. It’s a democratic republic. The republic part is important for the electoral college.

Basically, there are 538 electors in the electoral college. They are the ones who vote for the nation’s President and Vice President every four years.

How does the electoral college work?

The electoral college works through its 538 electors, Congress, and voting citizens of the United States.

That’s not a random number of electors: it’s actually equal to the number of people in Congress. (Each state has two senators, and a number of representatives corresponding to each state’s populations. Washington, D.C. counts as a state under the 23rd Amendment and has three electors.)

On Election Day, when you press that button (or, for mail-in ballots, color in a shape) next to a candidate’s name, that vote is sent to certain electors in your state that have pledged to vote for the candidate you selected.

The electors are often chosen by the candidate’s party. However, if more votes are cast in favor of one candidate — to their group of electors — over the other, then all electors in that state have to cast votes for the candidate that won the popular vote in the state (except in Maine and Nebraska, states in which votes can be split).

In order to win the presidency and vice presidency, candidates need a slim majority of 270 electoral votes. Once candidates reach the golden number of 270, they are considered to have been chosen by the people—through the electoral college—to be the President and Vice President of the country.

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Why was the electoral college created?

According to FactCheck, the country’s founding fathers put the electoral college in place because they did not trust full-blown democracy.

Alexander Hamilton wrote (not sang or rapped on Broadway) in the Federalist Papers how the Constitution ensures that the presidency does not fall into the wrong hands. Hence why we’ve had men like George Washington in office and now, well, Donald Trump.

The framers of the Constitution feared a tyrant, like the one they’d fought a war against to gain independence, could sway the public and sweep popular votes. Electors could create a buffer against that. The electoral college also gives more power to smaller states.

Why do people want to get rid of it now?

There are many arguments against the electoral college. The most resounding one is against its core purpose to replace the popular vote. The people vote for other elected officials via popular vote. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won the popular votes in 2000 and 2016 respectively, though they did not win the electoral college.

Another has to do with the history behind the electoral college. It was created during a time that only men who owned property could vote. That meant wealthy, white men. Women were thus out of the representative equation. Black slaves were considered 3/5ths a human being. Both groups had their voices suppressed for well over a century until women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights movement, which ended Jim Crow legislature.

Many argue that the electoral college is part of the system that disenfranchised much of the U.S. population since the country’s beginning.

Finally, math shows that the electoral college favors small states with low populations. Voters in Wyoming, the state with the lowest population, “have nearly four times the power in the Electoral College as people in California,” based on the number of electoral votes each state has.

Granted, of course, that each member of the electoral college votes for who they pledged to vote for, or follow the “winner takes all” rule that all states but Maine and Nebraska have in place — electors have voted differently than expected in the past, including a blank ballot cast in the 2016 election.

If you still don’t understand the electoral college, Trevor Noah explains it better than most Americans can.

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Alison Cerri is an editorial intern at YourTango. When she's not writing, she can be found on a run or at rugby practice. Follow her on Instagram.