Understanding the Electoral College before Election Day

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Demitria Powell, a senior majoring in human development and family studies at Michigan State University, knows the Electoral College has power. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite know how much.

“I think the Electoral College has the last say-so; however, I don’t think their say-so trumps everyone else’s,” Powell said. “They have to take into consideration the people’s view of who they want in power… On a smaller scale, states only think about themselves, but the Electoral College is more global when it comes to political power. That’s what I think they do.”

Powell, like many Americans, doesn’t quite have the full story on how the Electoral College works.

Mark Grebner, who’s dedicated 40 years of his life to politics, said young people who feel their vote doesn’t affect an election simply misunderstand the Electoral College.

“When people say they feel like their vote doesn’t matter in Michigan and it’s all up to the Electoral College, they might be referring to us not being a swing state,” Grebner said.

Before the general election, Democrats and Republicans each select their group of electors for each state. Whichever party gets the majority of votes in a given state uses their selected electors to vote for the president. Excluding Maine and Nebraska, every state has a winner-take-all approach to electoral votes. Winner-takes-all means that if a candidate wins the popular vote by just a single vote or more, his/her party gets all of the electoral votes.

There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs in the presidential election with a candidate needing 270 to win. The number of electors each state is allotted is based on the number of representatives a particular state has, plus its two senators. In Michigan, we have 14 members in the U.S. House of Representatives and two senators, so winning Michigan grants a candidate 16 of the total 538 electoral votes.


Analyzing Michigan’s 2012 presidential election results can give a better understanding of how the Electoral College works. About 4.7 million Michiganders turned up on Election Day in 2012. Of those who voted, just over 54 percent cast their ballot for President Obama as opposed to Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who garnered under 45 percent of Michigan’s popular vote.

As far as a party’s “slate” of electors, Grebner said there’s very little precedent for rogue Electoral College voters.

“Electors follow [the people’s] votes with little exception, and if someone goes off what’s expected, they’re called a ‘faithless elector,’” Grebner said. “Really, though, faithless electors don’t make a difference. Parties pick their slate, and they typically do a good job selecting people who represent the party well.”

Republicans and Democrats select their slate of electors for each state. How the party chooses these members varies from state to state, but the main criteria that both parties look for is loyalty. Neither wants an elector that might go “rogue” and vote for the other party’s candidate. This year, Republican Donald Trump has inconsistent support from members of his party, so it’s likely that Republicans worked hard to ensure that all of their electors would remain loyal to their party and not cast their vote for Hillary Clinton.

To vote, electors don’t meet and officially cast their ballots until the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, so in 2016, that’s Dec. 19. From there, the president of Senate will present the results to the House of Representatives and the Senate on Jan. 6. Although this is long after the popular vote, the public has a rough idea who won the Electoral College vote by the morning after Election Day simply by assuming there won’t be any rogue electors.

Prior to political parties gaining strength in the United States, the Electoral College worked as a middleman to prevent the public from electing dangerous candidates. Once it was made clear what party and candidate electors supported, white men, the only ones eligible to vote at the time, just chose the elector who shared their views.

“[The Founding Fathers] didn’t want the public vote directly, they wanted the public to pick wise men to vote in their place. It was indirect because they were nervous about the general population making big decisions,” Grebner said.

Playing party politics in Michigan is easy this November with straight-ticket voting thanks to a Supreme Court decision this fall striking down a bill that Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law last January that would have eliminate straight-ticket voting.

East Lansing City Clerk Marie Wicks said straight-ticket voting is good for voters and that barring it disproportionately affected minority groups.

“Voting straight ticket is politically motivated.” Wicks said. “[straight-ticket] a good thing for voters because it will reduce and speed up lines this election.”

Impacting which electors get to vote in Michigan this November should be quick in most areas because of straight-ticket voting. Even with easy access to polls, Grebner doesn’t count on more voters than usual casting ballots on Nov. 8.

“People [who don’t vote] want others to decide their lives for them, and if that’s how they want to live, so be it.”

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