The Electoral College

Many of my fellow American citizens are confused about how Donald Trump won the presidency. Hillary Clinton got more votes, so how did he win? America is a democracy after all, right?

The answer comes down to a fascinating little quirk of our government and a truth that most people don’t realize. The shocking truth first: the United States of America is not a democracy.

I can hear the confusion collecting in your consciousness, so let me hasten to explain. The United States of America is not a democracy at the national level – it is a federal republic.

I expect that this has made things about clear as mud for most of you, so let me explain more.

When American citizens go to the voting place every November (as I have done every time I could since I turned 18), many (most?) of the representatives and laws they vote for are elected/chosen by a simple democracy. That is, whoever/whatever gets the most votes, wins.

But not so the president. When American citizens vote for the president, they are voting for a representative. Each state has a certain number of representatives (with California having the most at 55). Those electors are usually chosen in a “winner take all” scenario, but Maine and Nebraska divide it up by percentage of votes. (So, 60% of the vote goes to Candidate A, so Candidate A gets 60% of the electoral votes). A majority of the 538 electors (270, to be precise) is required to become president. How the representatives are chosen is a whole other basket of bananas, so another day on that topic, perhaps.

You might be thinking this is all a little convuluted and a ridiculous way to choose a leader. To that, I have but one image to share with you from On Sizzle:


If this map still doesn’t make sense, let’s review a couple of facts.

Fact the first: the United States is HUGE. The distance between San Francisco (one of the western most points in the continental US) and Washington DC (the nation’s capital) is 3,928 kilometers or 2,441 miles. Mapquest says you could make the drive in 40 hours with $200 for gas; the reality is you would just barely make it out of California for the first day. I leave as an exercise for the reader what gas might cost.

Fact the Second: The population of the United States is not evenly distributed over the landmass. There are lots of different reasons why this is – geography, history, culture, jobs. The fact is, people tend to congregate. And in the United States, they’ve congregated in the blue areas seen in the above map.

Fact the Third: the United States has a HUGE population, currently at around 320 million people. And while a large number of them do live in the blue areas, a large number also live just about everywhere you could imagine (and probably a few places you couldn’t).

Fact the Fourth: the United States is diverse in a way very few countries are. I don’t mean merely in terms of geography (though there is that too); I mean that two people born and raised in America can still end up with issues understanding each other’s accents, much less cuisine choices, politics, or religion.

(These four facts are also why a large number of social programs that work in other counties never take off here).

Further, we need to discuss a few historical facts about America.

Historical Fact the First: America was a country born out of too much government interference without representation. The people who drew up the Constitution were well aware of what happened when the government got too involved.

Historical Fact the Second: Countries that are pure democracies (purely ruled by the majority) tend to fall apart. I forget which philosopher wrote that “the masses are easily swayed”, but if you have any doubt of its veracity, just check the trending hashtags on Twitter some time. The founders were also well aware of this problem.

Historical Fact the Third: There are certain groups in America that have been exploited and mistreated. Well, actually, pretty much every group has been exploited at some point. But some groups more than others. The people who live outside of the blue areas tend to be economically disadvantaged. They don’t have access to the kind of political power that those in the cities have.

So, if we put all these things together, what do we get? We get a lot of people living in a few places with one set of ideas who tend to have power and we get a lot of people spread out over a lot of places with a different set of ideas without a lot of power. So the electoral college is the attempt to balance out that problem.

Also, you can direct your ire to Alexander Hamilton. He’s responsible for plenty of other ire anyway, so he’s used to it.


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