Breakdown and Q&A of the Electoral College - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Breakdown and Q&A of the Electoral College

Electoral vote breakdown by state for the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Ambi Valent) Electoral vote breakdown by state for the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Ambi Valent)

(RNN) – With the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election just a day away, the candidates are focusing last-ditch efforts in a handful of states. Those few states where the race is closest can tip the balance to the required 270 electoral votes to be elected.

But what is the Electoral College and how does it work? It is an odd but important system that dates back to the first election in the U.S. in 1788.

Voters in 2012 might think they are casting their ballots for President Barack Obama, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or a third party candidate, but they will actually be selecting a presidential elector for their state.

Each political party chooses electors for each state, according to the U.S. Archives website. The process of nominating electors varies across the country, but many are nominated during their political party's state political convention.

Individual votes do matter, because when a candidate wins the popular vote in an individual state, that candidate's Electoral College representatives are pledged to cast their votes in favor of their candidate (though they are not required to - more on that later).

There are 538 electoral votes in all, but a candidate only needs an absolute majority of the votes - the aforementioned 270.

The number of electoral votes in a state is based on of the state's population. California, the most populous state, has 55 electoral votes, while the least populous state, Wyoming, has three. In every state but two, the winner of a state's popular vote receives all of that state's electoral votes.

So, whoever wins the popular vote in, say, Alabama, receives all nine electoral votes. 

However, in Maine and Nebraska, some of the electoral votes are divided by those states' congressional districts. Only once has Nebraska's electoral votes been split between candidates. In 2008, Obama gained one electoral vote by winning Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, while Republican presidential candidate John McCain received the remaining four electoral votes.

Now that you have a basic understanding, let's delve into the system's complications:

Is an electoral vote tie possible?

Yes, and there's a system in place should this happen. If there's a 269-269 electoral vote tie where no candidate gets the needed 270-vote majority, then the newly elected House will pick the president while the newly elected Senate picks the vice president. In both chambers of Congress, each state gets only one vote. It's possible that we could end up with a split ticket, with a president from one party and a vice president from the other party. Could you imagine the possibility of President Mitt Romney and Vice President Joe Biden, or President Barack Obama and Vice President Paul Ryan?

Is it possible to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College?

Yes, and it has happened several times. The most recent occurrence was in 2000, when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes but lost the Electoral College. Republican presidential candidate George Bush won the Electoral College 271-266 and became president.

Has an Electoral College representative ever not voted for the candidate they originally pledged?

Yes. A representative who does not vote for the candidate they originally pledged to vote for is called a faithless elector. There have been more than 150 instances of faithless electors in U.S. presidential election history, with the most recent instance happening in 2004. That year, a Minnesota elector who pledged for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards casted a presidential vote for John Edwards. Many people believed it was an accident, however, because the elector also misspelled John Edwards' name on the ballot (spelled as "John Ewards"). Since Minnesota's electors casted secret ballots, no one knows for sure who did it or why.

Many states have passed laws to punish faithless electors to discourage the practice, including swing states like Ohio, Florida and Colorado.

Why don't more states use Nebraska's and Maine's split electoral vote system?

In the early days of the U.S., the split electoral vote system was used, but states slowly switched to the winner-take-all system. Maine has used its congressional district split vote system since 1972, and Nebraska has used it since 1992.

Several states have tried to follow their lead, but to no avail. In 2004, Colorado voters rejected Amendment 36, which would have split Colorado's electoral votes based on the state's popular vote.

Why can't the popular vote be enough to determine who wins?

The Founding Fathers discussed this at length, and the debate rages on to this day. Currently, an Electoral College reform bill called the National Popular Vote bill has been introduced in all 50 states and has been passed into law by eight states and Washington, DC. According to the website, "The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) … Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state's electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia."

The states that have passed the National Popular Vote bill are California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington and Washington, DC. Though the bills have been passed, they can't be enacted until enough other states pass the bill so that the total number of electoral votes that follow that law reach 270. The current number of electoral votes from states that passed the National Popular Vote bill is 132, slightly less than half of the 270 needed.

Why do the candidates only campaign in a few states?

States that consistently vote for the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate are considered "safe" states and are often ignored during the campaign. The top two states with the most electoral votes - California and Texas - are considered safely Democratic and safely Republican, respectively.

States that have switched political parties during recent presidential elections, or states where the popular vote is really close between the top two candidates, are generally considered "swing" states. Candidates spend much of their time and money in these states in hopes of wooing voters to select them during the election.

The generally accepted list of swing states for the 2012 Presidential Election are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. A few states that could potentially be swing states but are generally considered to be leaning either Democratic or Republican include Michigan and Pennsylvania (leaning Democratic) and Arizona and Missouri (leaning Republican).

Copyright 2012 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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