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Understanding the U.S. Presidential Elections and Electoral College

Yesterday’s United States Presidential elections once again brought into focus this confusing matter of the Electoral College, that group of representatives from each of the member states of the federation that is called the United States of America which officially elects the President and Vice-President of the country. From the off, I wish to make it clear that the process of electing a President and Vice-President is not the same in the United States and the Philippines.

In the Philippines, the country’s two highest executive officials are elected by a popular vote; i.e. each qualified citizen exercises his or her right to suffrage by directly voting for the candidates of his or her choice. The votes are then tallied across the nation; and the winners by majority are elected President and Vice-President based on the nationwide total.

In the United States, on the other hand, the citizens vote for the candidates of their choice to determine the majority winners, but only as far as his or her own state is concerned. The nationwide tally of the citizens’ votes is not the official determining factor as to who gets to be elected President or Vice-President.

Historically, the Electoral College system is something of a compromise between having the federation’s chief executives elected by Congress as proposed in the United States’ formative years and the direct or popular vote.
Instead, each state has a number of so-called electors as specified by the constitution. The number of electors is based on each state’s representation in Congress and is, therefore, also based on each individual state’s size and population.

These electors are pledged to vote for the winning candidates in their respective states. For example, if Barack Obama won in the state of California, then the electors are pledged to vote for him in the name of state of California.

All in all, there are 538 of these electors who compose the Electoral College, representing the states of the union and the District of Columbia, where the capital city Washington is located. American territories such as Puerto Rico are not represented.

It is the tally of votes by all state electors that officially elects the President and Vice-President of the United States. Suffice it to say that discrepancies between the popular and Electoral College votes are not only possible but have been observed in various proportions down the years.

The process of nominating electors varies from one state to another. However, by and large, they are selected during the party conventions held by the Democrats and the Republicans and are frequently nominated as reward for their dedication to the party.

Ironically, there are no federal or state legislations that bind an elector to vote for the winning candidates in his or her state. The honour system, however, is meticulously adhered to by these electors.

The curiosity that is the Electoral College system may seem anomalous to many Filipinos. However, it has to be pointed out that the United States is a federation that is made up of states of unequal sizes and populations. In contrast, the Philippines is what is called a ‘unitary’ state.

In a sense, therefore, the Electoral College system ensures that the smaller states continue to be heard and represented instead of being cast under the shadows of the more populous states.

Historically, the Electoral College system is something of a compromise between having the federation’s chief executives elected by Congress as proposed in the United States’ formative years and the direct or popular vote.

Election by Congress would have made the electoral system similar to the parliamentary system as practised in the United Kingdom. This was suspect to the Founding Fathers of the United States not only because of the bitter secessionist war fought against the British; but also because such a system was seen as something that would limit the independence of the executive branch.

A popular or direct vote, as previously stated, would have made the more populous states dominant over the others.

There was also the little matter of practicality; and the distances of eighteenth century America were definitely farther than they have become today because of modern transport systems. It made sense for states to hold elections locally and then send their representatives to ride away on their horses to the capital to convey the results.

The historical context also explains why the members of the American Congress are elected directly by the citizens while the President and Vice-President are not. After all, they are elected locally and then relocate to the capital to participate in the legislative process as representatives of each state.

But while Senators and Representatives are directly elected by citizens across the federation, in a manner of speaking the President and the Vice-President are elected not by individual citizens across the nation but by the state to which each belongs. This, essentially, is the thinking behind the Electoral College – that each elector carries with him or her the vote of the state that he or she represents.

The system is not perfect and there have been moves in the United States Congress proposing to have the Electoral College abolished. A direct vote – particularly in the modern age of digital communications – can quickly determine the populous winners.

On the other hand, the United States is not just made up of the more famous states like New York, California, New Jersey or Michigan. There are obscure little states like Iowa, Delaware or Rhode Island; and these are as much part of the federation as the bigger and more familiar states.

Electoral College (United States)
U.S. Electoral College Frequently Asked Questions

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