Behind The Ballot
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Politics and Activism

Behind The Ballot

What you're really voting for in a presidential election.

Behind The Ballot

It's that time of year again. The time where everyone wishes they could have just skipped to November in August. Yep, the dreaded or wonderful Election Year (depending on how many of these you've been through already). It will be my first election where I'm old enough to vote, and what once started out as a feeling of excitement and pride has slowly degraded into dread and foreboding. I was excited to vote, to be able to participate and have my voice heard, in a sense. Even a part of me is still kind of excited, though this may be the worst first election ever.

But I'm not here to talk about the candidates. I'm here to talk about what I always hear: "It doesn't matter who you vote for. Your vote doesn't really count anyway." So I'm going to get to the bottom of this and answer "Where do our votes really go? And do they even mean something once they get there?"

When I was younger, I thought all of the votes for president went to some giant box where they were all counted and whichever candidate had the most votes won. Simple, right?

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.

In fact, it's actually the Electoral College who directly elects the President and Vice President every four years. The candidate who receives the majority of electoral votes is the one who is elected. This explains why, though rare, a candidate can have won the popular vote but not the electoral vote.

So at first glance, this seems pretty strange. Why not just elect the president based on the popular vote? Isn't that what this democracy was founded upon, the direct participation of the people? Actually, the Electoral College goes all the way back to the creation of what is now the United States Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Not to get bogged down in too much detail, but basically The Articles of Confederation governed the United States following the Revolutionary War. And they did a pretty terrible job of it. So Continental Congress called for a Constitutional Convention made up of representatives from each state to be held in Philadelphia to amend the Articles. The Framers didn't agree with each other on how to select the president (as a federal republic was virtually the first of its kind at that time), and they didn't fully trust the average Americans' political views because back then, many people were uninformed and didn't have access to the correct information. So, they created the Electoral College as a kind of failsafe.

OK, so what exactly are electors and how are they chosen? They can't be Senators or Representatives, nor any "Person holding an office of Trust or Profit under the United States." The number of Electors is equal to the number of Senators and members of the House of Representatives for each state, i.e. more populous big states have more Electors and less populous small states have fewer Electors. They're chosen in a two-step process: The political parties in each state first choose potential Electors before the general election, and the people then choose the electors by voting for the President. There are multiple slates of Electors, one for each candidate. So whichever candidate wins the state popular vote, the potential Electors for that candidate are appointed.

Also, some states have different requirements for who their Electors vote for. Alabama, for example, is one of 29 states where Electors are required to vote for the candidate who won the popular state vote. But in Georgia (and 21 other states), there is no specific law or mandate requiring them to do so. The winning candidate also gets all of the Electors from that state. So even if Candidate 1 had 48 percent of the popular state vote and Candidate 2 had 52 percent, Candidate 2 would get all of the possible Electors for that state. The only two states with a proportional distribution are Nebraska and Maine, where the winning candidate gets two Electors and the other Electors go to the winner of each congressional district (which personally I think is a more fair system).

Because of how the Electoral College works, "swing states" are vital to presidential elections. It's those crucial Electors that will more than likely decide who the next President of the United States is. Whereas in states that consistently vote Republican or Democrat, someone voting against the majority doesn't have much of a chance of influencing the Electors. This is why people commonly say that your vote doesn't count, especially when you're in the minority opinion of that state. You're voting in a state election, not a national election, so your vote still carries weight in your state, but it just might be greater or less than in other states. Unless you live in Nebraska or Maine, in which case your vote could actually carry more weight in-state depending on your congressional district.

If you really want to participate directly to make more of a change, I'd consider focusing on electing different Congress members. For example, Alabama's Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions have been in office for 29 years and 19 years, respectively. This is fine if you agree with their policies, but if you don't, it's an area where you could see a more direct impact of your vote (but that's a story for another time).

So there you have it. When you vote on November 8, you're really voting in a state election for your candidate's slate of Electors. Then those Electors will meet in December in their state capitals to vote for the President and Vice President. It's not a perfect system by any means, and it can seem unfair, but it's probably the best one we've got. And that counts for something, right?

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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