Sydell Shayer

Did you know that the method for counting votes in a presidential election is different than the way votes are counted in state and local elections? We take for granted that the candidate that

gets the most popular votes in an election is the winner. But “winner take all” is not the way presidents are elected in the United States.

Our present electoral system dates back to when the United States Constitution was written in 1787. Then the country only had 13 states of various sizes and populations. Each was reluctant to give up whatever power it had. The electoral system, as set out in the Constitution, is called the Electoral College. The Electoral College method of determining presidential votes is state-based.

The Electoral College system is undemocratic. It does not count each person’s vote equally.  Each state is allotted electoral votes depending on its population. But the electoral votes are not just numbers; they are represented by real people. Each state chooses an individual elector for each of its electoral votes. The state determines how the elector will vote. With few exceptions, the electors pledge to give their vote to the candidate who gets the most votes in their state.

The total number of electoral votes is 538. To win a presidential election the candidate must win at least a majority of the votes which is 270 electoral votes. Each state gets 1 vote for each senator, plus the 435 representatives divided by population which equals 435 votes plus 3 votes for the District of Columbia. That equals the 538 total electoral votes.

For example, Missouri has 10 electoral votes. In Missouri, if candidate A gets 100,000 votes and candidate B gets 90,000 votes, Candidate A would get all the electoral votes in Missouri. If you add up all the winners of the electoral votes in each state, usually it does not add up to the same number as if you did away with the Electoral College and only counted the direct votes that people cast in the whole country. In the Unites States, the candidate who wins the most electoral votes actually wins the election, not the candidate who wins the majority of popular votes countrywide.   

So far, five presidential candidates who won the most votes nationwide did not become president. The most recent case was in the last election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 2 and a half million more votes than her opponent but still lost the presidency because of the way votes are counted under the Electoral College.

According to a 2015 poll, between 65 and 75 percent of American voters support direct election of the president by popular vote. According to that same poll, 75 percent of Missouri voters support direct election of the president by popular vote.

Abolishing the Electoral College is not easy. It is part of the original U.S. Constitution and would require a constitutional amendment. It is introduced in Congress every year. It is very difficult to amend the Constitution. It took 100 years to pass the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. And the Equal Rights Amendment has not passed since being introduced 46 years ago.

There is an alternate way to elect the president by a direct popular vote of the people nationwide, which is gaining traction. It would use the Electoral College but change the rules a little bit. It is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The compact is an agreement among the states to have their electors pledge that they would cast their vote for president to the candidate who won the most votes in all 50 states rather than to the candidate who won the most votes in their state. It is not as farfetched as one might think.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia, totaling 172 electoral votes, have already passed legislation to give their votes to the national presidential winner. That means that only 98 more electoral votes are needed to reach 270 electoral votes, which would guarantee the national majority vote winner. Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, is likely to be the next state to join the compact.

Several legislators in Missouri, from both the Republican and Democratic parties, have introduced legislation to join the compact. It requires public support to urge them on.

It seems to be a no brainer to want the president and vice-president of United States to be elected by a majority vote of the people nationwide. What do you think?

Sydell Shayer is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis and chair of its National Popular Vote Committee.

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