The Electoral College

Which Votes Matter?

By Reeve Berlinberg

I want to take you back to November 9, 2016, the morning after the 58th presidential election. I was seventeen, filled with rage that I was unable to vote.  Growing up in liberal Portland, Oregon, I found the possibility of Donald Trump getting elected a fanciful notion and was unable to process that it was now my new reality. As I walked into my AP US Government class, I could tell that the rest of the students shared the same sentiment. My teacher, an obvious liberal, decided to pause instruction for the day and allow us to wallow for the rest of the period. My rage would soon turn to confusion.


In the days that followed, I kept hearing sound bites like “Hillary actually won the election because she won the popular vote” or “Trump just won the electoral vote” and “How is it possible that Hillary got more votes but lost?” In fact, a candidate winning the popular vote but losing the presidency has occurred four times prior to 2016. Why you may ask? Short answer, it is thanks to our Founding Fathers and a system they invented called the Electoral College. Get ready for another line in our constitution that has caused quite a bit of strife. 

Back in 1787, the Founding Fathers were having a very difficult time deciding how a President should be elected. Some thought it should be Congress’s decision to elect a President while others said it should be the role of the people. The framers, most notably James Madison, were fearful of political factions and were not confident that the general public would make informed decisions when voting. The concerns of the framers remain true to this day when we have seen some voters blatantly disregard fact. Other framers wanted to ensure states with larger populations did not decide the election.

 After months and months of discussion, they decided on a solution as old as time, a compromise. This compromise was the Electoral College. To break it down, the Electoral College is a group of people selected to cast votes on behalf of their entire state. It is a 1 to 1 system based on the number of legislators in your state. So, for instance, each state receives 2 electoral votes to represent their 2 U.S. senators plus additional electors for each U.S. representative from the state.  In order for a candidate to win the presidency, they must receive a total of 270 electoral votes. 

My home state of Oregon gets 7 electoral votes because we have 2 senators and 5 representatives. California, a much larger state, has 55 electoral votes. Conversely, Wyoming, which has a very small population, has only 3 electoral votes.  Based on the population in each state, this means that every Wyoming voter’s decision has 3 ½ times the influence of one California voter. 

Wait? Do those selected people vote according to their own beliefs? No! Whoever wins the majority of the votes in the state mandates how all the electors vote. Our winner takes all system is why so many presidential candidates focus their campaigning in large states like Florida with 29 electoral votes, Texas with 38, and New York with 29. If a candidate wins in those 3 places, they already have 96 electoral votes. So even if a candidate wins the popular vote, they can fail to gain the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. 

A candidate who is able to gain electoral votes in larger states will likely win the election. So, some argue that the electoral college system gives an unfair advantage to candidates who win larger states-- failing to achieve the Founders’ goal to give all states big and small equal representation. However, others refute that argument because in close elections, every single electoral vote counts. 

Why other than to pass a test in a civics class, should you care about these intricate details? Because you have been lied to. We do not live in a real democracy. We actually live in a federal presidential constitutional republic. The weight of your vote in the presidential election differs based on where you vote! Insert *gasps*, insert *screams*, insert *confused faces*. Considering that all electors (besides Maine and Nebraska) must vote based on the majority in your state, candidates can often-times determine if they will win or lose in a state prior to the beginning of their campaign. The history of how your state has voted allows political pundits to characterize it as a safe or swing state. If a state has a history of voting for a particular party in the last four presidential elections, it is a safe state. States that have switched their electoral votes in the last several elections are deemed “swing states.”  Swing states are sadly much more important to candidates because they have the possibility to convince people to vote in their favour.  

To be frank, if you are a Democrat in Alabama or Mississippi voting in a Federal election, you are screwed, and if you are a Republican in Oregon or Massachusetts, you are also out of luck. And despite the multitude of Instagram stories on your feed that tell you to “JUST VOTE” as if it will solve all our problems, they are wrong if you live in a predetermined state. However, this is not to discourage political participation. Traditional Red and Blue states are not homogenous throughout––for example, Orange County, CA Republicans, and Democrats in Austin, TX. While we may not always have an influence over Federal elections, we can control our local representation. 

My intention is not to be the bearer of bad news but to be realistic. I expect each and every one of you to vote on November 3rd but recognize that your vote does not carry the weight you thought. I wrote this article because I believe we place too much emphasis on the power of the President and forget about the little folks like our senators, representatives, governors, mayors, all the way down to our school board directors. Those positions matter, and so do your votes!  

Everything from the legalization of marijuana, housing, and homeless policy, education funding and investment, to abolishing the death penalty is decided in state elections.  Not to forget it is up to our local officials to curb the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. 

They say voting is power but even more so is knowing what exactly you are voting for. I used to think the only people who cared about local elections were those 65 and older with too much time on their hands. However, 2020 is our year to show up at the polls not just for the president but for all positions, because not only does your vote count more, but also those officials hold power. As I write this, my Governor of Oregon was able to negotiate with Homeland Security to get unmarked federal troops off my city’s streets. Now go register, go read, and go vote.