What is the Electoral College and How Does it Work?

Presidential election: Voters may get chance to change way Ohio awards electoral votes

Voters could see a ballot issue this fall awarding state’s 2020 electoral votes to national popular vote winner.

However, making a major change to the U.S. Constitution is nearly impossible, so a group is collecting signatures in Ohio for a ballot issue to change the way the state awards its sought-after 18 electoral votes in the 2020 election.

Signatures are being gathered to put an issue on this fall’s ballot to award Ohio’s votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The group has until early July to turn in the signatures to make the ballot.

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Jacob Levy, a professor of political theory at McGill University in Montreal calls the Electoral College a “strange piece of constitutional machinery left over” from the dawn of the Republic and which has the final say who gets elected president of the United States.

The 18 electoral votes for the state of Ohio were cast on Monday afternoon for Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence.

Although the winner of the national popular vote almost always wins the presidency, Republicans George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 won a majority of the 538 electoral votes even as they lost the popular vote to their Democratic opponents.

Those defeats have prompted Democrats to launch the most intensive effort to abolish the Electoral College since 1969 when Republican President Richard Nixon and his 1968 Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey pressed in vain for Congress to approve a constitutional amendment to elect presidents by national popular vote after one of the closest elections in American history.

“It’s gotta go,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is considering a run for president, told the Washington Post about the Electoral College, a sentiment echoed by other Democratic presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Kristin Gillibrand of New York.

Ohio voters may get to decide issue to give electoral votes to winner of national vote

Because amending the U.S. Constitution is such a heavy lift, Democrats in Ohio are backing a more modest overhaul. The ballot issue Ohio voters may face this November would allow the state to join 13 other states and the District of Columbia in what is known as a compact and award their electoral votes to the candidate with the most popular votes nationally.

Ohio electors cast their votes

To opponents of the Electoral College it is inherently anti-democratic. How in a democracy, they ask, can Hillary Clinton win nearly 3 million more votes nationally in 2016 and still lose the presidency?

To supporters, the Electoral College preserves the federal system of an uneasy coalition between the states and the national government. Bradley Smith, a conservative professor of law at Capital University, said “we should be careful before we mess with institutions that have been around for a long time.”

Despite the outcry from Democrats, there is almost no chance that two-thirds of the U.S. House and Senate and three-fourths of the states will agree to a constitutional amendment to assign the Electoral College to history.

“Everyone can talk about the Electoral College all they want, but nothing is going to happen before 2020 election to change it,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant in Boston. “What is far more important now is we have a safe and secure election process where every machine is secured and every vote is counted accurately.”

Matt Borges, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said “if Republicans had lost two of the last five elections because we got stiffed in the Electoral College, we might we be making these same kinds of proposals. I’d like to think we wouldn’t. But we might.”

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush, left, speaks as Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore watches during their debate at Washington University in this St. Louis file photo from Oct. 17, 2000.
Photo: AP

Why do we have the Electoral College?

Nowhere in the original Constitution can you even find the phrase “Electoral College.” It’s not a college and electors do not meet in one central location.

Instead, the founders created the system because they wanted state legislatures to choose well-qualified and highly educated people as “electors” who would then pick the president.

Throughout the 19th century, the system evolved as more states permitted everyday voters to choose the electors and eliminate the independence of the electors so the voters actually chose the president.

Ohio could lose campaign money, see fewer candidates visit

Because virtually all states operate on a winner take-all system, a candidate carrying Ohio by one single vote would be awarded all the state’s 18 electoral votes. And it forces candidates to focus on the most competitive states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Nevada.

Because Democratic presidential candidates have carried Ohio four times since 1992 while Republicans have won it three times in those years, the Electoral College has been a financial boon.

Candidates from both parties spent so much time and money in the state that it produces a windfall for TV stations. By scrapping the Electoral College, candidates might de-emphasize the state, promoting Republican consultant Terry Casey to quip, “Spouses would have to talk to each other instead of thinking about who is coming to town as the next presidential candidate.”

Ohio electors cast their votes

Although the winner of the popular vote tends to win the Electoral College, five times the president was elected despite losing the popular vote – 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016.

Bush and Trump lost the popular vote in part because Republicans are uncompetitive in California, the largest state in the country. Because neither Bush nor Trump bothered to campaign there, Clinton’s margin of victory in the popular vote was almost entirely due to her running up huge margin in California.

That would change dramatically under a national popular vote. “People would campaign and spend their money in the big states,” said Charlie Black, a Republican consultant in Washington.

“For a Republican, even if you could not carry California, if you lose it 53-to-47 instead of 58-42, that’s millions of votes,” Black said. “You cannot make up that many votes in Iowa and Alabama. Probably the 30 smallest states would not get any attention.”

In addition, the Electoral College works best when there are only two candidates instead of a strong third-party nominee. In 1912, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won just 42 percent of the vote, but prevailed with 435 electoral votes because he ran against two Republicans - President William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt.

“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt in 1912 the only reason Woodrow Wilson won is because the Republican Party split,” said Edward Foley, a professor of election law at Ohio State and author of the forthcoming book, “Presidential Elections and Majority Rule.”

“The problem is the system was built for just two parties,” Foley said.

Foley said the same problem exists with Ohio joining a national compact. It almost certainly would prompt more third-party challenges and could ritually lead to presidents being elected with less than 50 percent of the vote.

The only way to avoid that outcome, Foley said, is for states to conduct a preliminary election in September to narrow the field to two candidates. The two would then face each other in November and would guarantee producing a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Nobody seriously believes serious changes are imminent. “As of this moment, it’s very clear Republicans have an advantage with the Electoral College and as long as that is clear, you can’t get (the bipartisan support) for a constitutional amendment,” Levy said.

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