As most everyone knows, the United States uses what political scientists call an indirect method of election to select our president and vice-president. The system is known as the Electoral College. It is mandated by the federal constitution.
Membership in the Electoral College is granted to each state according to its population. There are 538 members. They are assigned to each state according to the number of the members of the House of Representatives and that state’s two senators. As an example, the state of Oregon has seven electors, the sum of five House members and two senators. In order to win the election, the presidential candidate must secure at least 270 electoral votes.
The reasons for the Electoral College are interesting. The basic reason is that many of the framers of the Constitution did not trust giving the selection of the chief executive to the general population. They were suspicious of the ability of the general population to resist the temptation to vote for a candidate who might imperil the democratic ideal. Thus they created a second level of voting. That level is the Electoral College.
Perhaps the most controversial issue today is the formula that prescribes how electoral votes are cast. Forty-eight states mandate that all of each state’s electoral votes are cast to the winner of the popular vote in that state. Nebraska and Maine provide for a division of the electoral votes. Using the current formula, it is possible for a huge number of votes to be simply thrown out. As an example, if four million votes were cast in a state with the result that 2,000,001 were cast for one candidate and 1,999,999 for the other candidate, the “winner” receives all of that states electoral votes.
Although always somewhat controversial, the current concern about the method of an indirect election is largely due to the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections. Had a direct election system been in place, we would have had a President Al Gore and President Hillary Clinton. Both Gore and Clinton garnered more votes than the winners of the Electoral College vote. Of course since the current system is ensconced in the U.S. Constitution, it would require a constitutional amendment to change the system.
Perhaps a brief look at how other constitutional democracies select their chief executive would help us decide on a more appropriate system. Consider the following electoral procedures.
• Indirect election: As described earlier, this system uses a secondary level of voting to select its chief executive (usually called a president). It is interesting to note that the United States is the only large democracy to employ this system.
Chief executive chosen by a legislative body: For example, the German president is elected by the Bundestag (630 members) and 630 members chosen by the German states.
• Parliamentary system: In this system the chief executive is chosen by the legislative body based on the number of seats won by each party in the general election. The leader of each party is always known before the general election so it is known who will be the prime minister before the election. If no party secures a majority of seats, the leading party is asked to form a coalition. The United Kingdom is probably the best example of this system.
• Direct election: This procedure simply adds up the popular votes. The candidate who wins the most votes is elected as the chief executive.
The remaining question is which system (or some hybrid system) is best for the United States. Many people find the results of the 2000 and 2016 elections to be very unsettling. The course of our country would most likely be very different if a direct election system would have been in place.