Here in the United States of America, voters are starting to think about the choice that they will be making in November of this year, when voters will elect a new President and Vice President.
Except that voters will do nothing of the kind.
As any student of U.S. government knows, the President and Vice President are not directly elected by the people. Because 18th century politicians were fearful of entrusting the election of a President directly to the people, the U.S. Constitution specified that the President would be selected by a group of electors, in a body known as the Electoral College.
So in reality, U.S. voters are voting for electors, who will then gather together a month later to truly select the President and Vice President. However, in certain years, including 1800 and 1876, other parties selected the President and Vice President. (Technically, the 2000 election was determined by the Electoral College, since the state electoral votes were determined BEFORE submission to the Electoral College.)
Just to illustrate how unimportant the popular vote was in early years, the Electoral College website doesn’t even record popular votes cast before 1824. In that year, Andrew Jackson received 151,271 popular votes and 99 electoral votes, and John Quincy Adams received 113,122 popular votes and 83 electoral votes. Since Jackson did not receive a majority of the electoral vote, this was one of those cases in which the election wasn’t decided by the Electoral College. Jackson ended up losing, but by 1828, over a million popular votes were tabulated, partly because of the revulsion of the people at having the President selected by a limited few – in the 1824 case, the members of the House of Representatives.
Yet even in 2000, George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Al Gore. However, due to the nature of electoral voting, which often proceeds in a “winner take all” method, Bush got the electoral votes where it counted.
But this does not necessarily mean that candidates will campaign in the states with the largest electoral votes. Take my home state of California – the last Republican to receive California’s electoral votes was George H.W. Bush, and that was only in 1998 – by 1992 the state went for Bill Clinton, and it has been solidly Democratic ever since. So I don’t expect President Obama or the eventual Republican nominee to spend a lot of time in California – other than for fund-raising.
It’s interesting to note that California’s presidential voting has been cyclical. As mentioned above, the state has gone for Democrats since 1992. But from 1952 to 1988, the state only voted for a Democrat once, and that was in the 1964 election in which Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater. Between 1932 and 1948, California consistently voted Democratic, paralleling the country as a whole. Before that, California’s votes were relatively inconsequential – in 1928, California only cast 13 electoral votes, as opposed to the 55 votes it cast in 2008.
I cannot predict whether or when the Electoral College will be abolished. However, the fact that the people who usually object to the Electoral College are the people who lost the last election – in other words, the people who do NOT have executive power at the time – it’s difficult to envision a case in which the politicians in power will actively work to design an alternative Presidential election method.