What is the Electoral College? How is it different than a popular vote?
The Electoral College is the method that the United States uses to hold Presidential elections. Instead of choosing the president based on the candidate that receives the most votes by the people (the popular vote), the president is chosen based on the candidate that receives the most votes by the electors (the electoral vote). But what does this mean?
Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of U.S. Congress members that represent their state. For example, Arizona currently has 10 electors because it has 8 Congress members in the House of Representatives and 2 Congress members in the Senate. The number of U.S. Congress members that represent a state is determined by Congress, which makes its determination based on the state's population. The method for nominating state electors is determined by state law.
During the presidential elections, each state takes a popular vote. At the end of the popular vote, the electors in the majority of states are required to vote for the presidential candidate that won the popular vote in their state (some states do not require the elector to vote based on the popular vote, but this is generally done in practice regardless). In other words, 48 states take a "winner takes all approach," where the winning candidate of the state's popular vote gets all of the electoral votes for that state. This year, for example, John McCain received all 10 of Arizona's electoral votes because he received the majority of the votes in Arizona's popular vote. Any popular votes for Barack Obama in the state of Arizona simply did not apply to the electoral vote.
Two states, Maine and Nebraska, split up the electoral votes between the presidential candidates based on the winner of the popular vote in each district, and give 2 electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the popular vote of the state. However, because Maine is very democratic and Nebraska is very republican, all the districts in Maine usually vote in favor of the democratic candidate and all the districts in Nebraska usually vote in favor of the republican candidate. In other words, one candidate usually wins all of the electoral votes from Maine and one candidate usually wins all the electoral votes from Nebraska anyway due to the states' strong political stance.
Simply put, the candidate that receives the most electoral votes wins the presidency. This means that a candidate who wins the popular vote will still lose the presidency if they do not win the electoral vote. In fact, this happened in the 2000 election between George. W. Bush and Al Gore. However, one might ask: Where does this system come from? Why do we still have it? Why doesn't a democratic society pick their president based on the majority of popular votes that he receives? For more answers, stay tuned for Part II.