Electoral College is a reminder that we are a union of states

With the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, the Electoral College will likely be in the spotlight again as it is every four years. The Electoral College gets even more scrutiny when the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes does not win the presidency. This has happened five times since 1824, including twice in the last 20 years (the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016).

To many voters, the Electoral College is a mystery, despite having a central role in electing America’s chief executive since the country’s founding. Here’s how it works: The U.S. Constitution provides for election of the president and vice president by electors appointed by each state. The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of U.S. senators and representatives. Thus, Ohio has 18 electors. The District of Columbia is also allotted three electors.

In most states, the political parties submit a list of potential electors to the state’s chief election official, which is the secretary of state in Ohio. Following the election, the slate of electors pledged to the presidential ticket that receives the most popular votes in the state serves as the official electors for that state. Maine and Nebraska have more complicated formulas allowing proportional representation.

In December of presidential election years, each state’s electors meet in their respective state capitals to cast their electoral votes for president and vice president. A majority of the electoral votes (270 out of 538) is needed to win.

Critics have argued that the Electoral College is outdated and should be replaced by a system that ensures that the candidate that wins the national popular vote would be elected president. In fact, recently there has been a push in certain states to create an interstate compact to elect the president based on the national popular vote. Under the proposal, the electoral votes of a state that has joined the compact would automatically go to the candidate that secured the highest number of popular votes nationwide regardless of who wins the popular vote in that particular state. The national popular vote initiative, however, has not been adopted in Ohio and does not have the requisite support from other states to impact the process for the 2020 presidential election.

Many people, who are perplexed by the Electoral College process, are curious how such a system developed. The Electoral College concept was part of the vision of the American founding dating back to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. The American founding fathers proposed the Electoral College as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by national popular vote. The founders feared that under a system of election by popular vote, a large regional faction in a populous area – especially if there were several candidates – could elect a president who did not have broad national support.

While the country is certainly much larger and more diverse today, the founders’ objectives may still be relevant. For example, if the election for president was based exclusively on the national popular vote, the candidates would likely focus their efforts exclusively on large metropolitan areas and major media markets. By having the Electoral College system with states following a winner-takes-all approach to their electors, presidential candidates often visit urban, suburban and rural areas seeking votes, especially in so-called swing states. This helps to ensure presidential candidates engage a wide cross-section of voters, not just focusing on specific special interest factions or geographic regions.

But the founders were concerned with more than just preventing election of regional or factional candidates. They viewed the new nation as a union of states under a federal system and, as such, wanted to preserve a primary role for the states in America’s governance. The Electoral College was one way they did so by ensuring the states had a significant role in electing the nation’s chief executive.

When the late political scientist Peter W. Schramm, of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, addressed the meeting of the Ohio electors in December of 2000, he discussed two great principles of the U.S. Constitution: democratic elections and federalism. Schramm pointed out that the genius of our presidential election process is that both principles are preserved by holding a democratic election for president within each state pursuant to the Electoral College system.

This idea of federalism, which ensures a prominent role for the states in our nation’s governance, has long been an important Constitutional value in our system, and the Electoral College embodies that value in our process for electing the president. Interestingly enough, this idea of federalism has also played a significant role in how dentistry is practiced in America as well. More on that in next month’s column.