Electoral vs. Popular. Does Your Vote Count?

I have heard a lot of my peers say that they believe their vote in this years Presidential Election does not matter. And it too, has made me wonder. Most people I have talked to know there is a popular and electoral vote and that they fall within the popular vote. But how exactly do they work? It certainly has no simple explanation, but I have found a few sources and will try to give you a general idea of how it does work (with a little american history involved).

Every 4 years, the people of the United States elect a President, indirectly Here’s how David Walbert breaks it down:

  1. In November of a presidential election year, each state holds an election for president in which all eligible citizens may vote. Citizens vote for a “ticket” of candidates that includes a candidate for president and a candidate for vice president.
  2. The outcome of the vote in each state determines a slate of electors who then, in turn, make the actual choice of president and vice president. Each state has as many electors as it has senators and members of the House of Representatives, for a total of 538.
  3. In December, the electors meet in their respective state capitols to cast their ballots for president and vice president. States may or may not require their electors to vote with the popular majority, and they may or may not give all of their electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.
  4. These ballots are opened, counted, and certified by a joint session of Congress in January.
  5. If no candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes or if the top two candidates are tied, the House of Representatives selects a president from among the five candidates with the most votes. Each state’s delegation has a single vote. The Senate selects a vice president by the same process.

This means that a candidate who wins the national vote does not necessarily become the president. That’s because there is no national election for president, only separate state elections. Electors are pledged to cast their vote conformed to the popular vote of the people, from that state. In rare cases, faithless voters go against the popular vote and do not vote for their party’s designated candidate. There are 24 states with laws that punish faithless voters (Washington being one of them).

States with laws that punish faithless voters. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

As Walbert pointed out, it’s useful to think of the Constitution as an experiment-as a work in progress. He describes one of the biggest issues of the time of the Constitution’s adoption was how much power the people should have.

Small states small states were concerned about being swallowed up by more populated states such as Virginia. That is why it was decided to have equal representation in Senate and representation by population in House of Representatives.

The electoral college was a compromise based on how much power the people should have, and how much power small and large states should have. When it came to voting for a president the original “framers” for the Constitution (Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, King, etc.) believed that states should do the voting not the people. This was partly because, as Walbert puts it, there was no consciousness of “United States as a single nation” but rather a union of separate states. Therefore, the compromise was extended to the electoral college.  In the beginning, state legislatures voted for electors, who in turn voted for the president and vice president. Electors were free to vote for the candidate of their choice, but over time they were increasingly elected because they supported a particular candidate.

Walbert notes that the original Constitution did not take into account political parties. It used to be that there was an election for two candidates for president, the candidate with the most was president and the other candidate with the least would become vice president. Of course, the 12th amendment changed this.

Does The Popular Vote Matter?


But I cannot stress enough that a president is not chosen by a national popular vote. Electoral votes are awarded based on the plurality of popular votes in each state. 48 states work off a system known as the winner-takes-all rule. Which is the majority of popular votes for that state means the candidate takes the electoral votes from that state.

(Nebraska and Maine are the two that do not use winner-takes-all but proportional voting which means there could be a split in the electoral votes.)

What is interesting is that your vote may count more or less than in other states, here is how.

It may seem that your opinion is up against millions of others but the fact is that your are entitled to that. And voting is your opportunity to voice such through a collective of many others. Even if the person you have voted for does not win the election, it does not mean you have not done your civic duty.


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