Debating the Merits of the Electoral College

Electoral Votes by State i i

hide captionThere are a total of 538 electoral votes, with 270 needed to win.

U.S. State Dept.
Electoral Votes by State

There are a total of 538 electoral votes, with 270 needed to win.

U.S. State Dept.

About the Electoral College

Number of Electors: 538, one for each of 435 House members, 100 senators and three for the District of Columbia.

Number Needed to Win: 270

Allocation: Each state's electors equal the number of its House members and two senators.

Selection: Electors are generally chosen by the political parties, but they are not required by law to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state.

Split Vote: In Maine and Nebraska, two electors are chosen at-large by statewide popular vote, while the rest are selected by popular vote in each congressional district. That means the electoral votes in those two states can result in a split slate of electors.

House Role: If no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the presidential election is decided by a majority vote of the U.S. House. Each state delegation receives one vote.

Source: National Archives

The disputed 2000 presidential election revived a long-standing debate over the Electoral College and its role in American democracy. While George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore, he gained office through the Electoral College system — after a legal fight in Florida that ended up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Listen: Judith Best on Chicago Public Radio's 'Odyssey'

In a Morning Edition interview last week, George Edwards, author of Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, questioned the system. Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, argued that it distorts an election by dividing up the vote, state by state.

"At base, it violates political equality," Edwards told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "It's not a neutral counting device; instead, it favors some citizens over others depending solely on the state in which they cast their votes for president.

"So it's an institution that aggregates the popular vote in an inherently unjust manner and allows the candidate who is not preferred by the American public to win the election."

On Wednesday's program, Judith Best, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, defends the Electoral College. She's the author of The Case Against Direct Election of the President.

"Primarily, the role of the election is to select a president who can govern this vast and heterogeneous nation," Best tells Inskeep in an interview. "A presidential election is not a census or even a public opinion poll. It's not designed to break down the population into separate isolated individuals and treat them as mere numbers. It's designed to bring together the largest possible support for the winner," Best says. "To be able to govern, the winner must have broad cross-sectional... base of support. Broad distribution of support is far more important than depth of support."

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