By Eyobong Ita
WARNING: The following information may sound crazy or confusing to you, especially if you already know that real estate billionaire Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States of America. However, pay close attention and you’ll learn a lot about the enigma called Electoral College.
Yes, the American people voted on November 8 to elect Trump as the next president of the United States, despite Hillary Clinton winning more votes than Trump – Clinton actually won more than two million votes than Trump. So how can Trump win if she had more than two million votes than he did? Well, Trump won more Electoral College votes, which by the constitution of the United States are far more important than the popular votes Clinton won. Even if Clinton had received one billion votes more than Trump, she still would not have won. See, I told you it sounds crazy! Just stay with me, there’s more.
Remember in my previous columns I informed you about 538 Electoral College votes? That number represents the two senators in each state of the 50 states of the Union, and the House of Reps members in each state, which varies depending on the number of their congressional districts. By virtue of being the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia a.k.a. Washington, D.C. also gets three votes. Although D.C. is not a state and therefore not entitled to congressional representation, that allotment is what it would have had if it were a state.
So on election night, those states Trump won translated into 306 Electoral College votes, against Clinton’s 232. The minimum votes to win the U.S. presidential election is 270. So does this mean Trump is the next U.S. president? Actually no. At least not yet. Not until the Electoral College votes Dec. 19 to decide who the next president of the United States would be. Aha! Now you’re confused. Very confused, right? You’re not alone. Believe it or not, many Americans don’t even understand how this Electoral College system works. They just vote and think that’s it. Wrong!
Here’s what you need to know. Let’s call this “lecture” U.S. Presidential Election 101. The Electoral College is not really a college or university. Simply put, it is a process of electing the president of the United States of America by 538 people known as Electors. These are the people who actually elect the president of the United States of America. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were worried that any charismatic candidate could wow the populace and get elected president.
The electors then have the sole right to determine if that candidate is fit to serve as president. The electors exercise that authority on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December after a presidential election. On that day, they are constitutionally required to assemble in each of their state capital to vote for the president and vice president, respectively. In this year’s U.S. presidential election, that day is Monday, Dec. 19. The votes of at least 270 electors (yes, that magic number again!) are needed to elect the President and Vice President of the union. Their votes are the only ones that count, according to the U.S. Constitution. This means that Trump’s victory or the millions of votes cast for Clinton on November 8 doesn’t mean squad. Whoever the required majority of these electors vote for, automatically wins the election.
Historically, the electors usually vote for whoever won the “symbolic” Electoral College votes in the general election. To protect the general election votes of the people in their states, 26 states in the union and D.C. require the electors (either by law or party pledges) to vote for the candidate that won the election in those states. However, the electors still have the constitutional right to vote for a different candidate, including someone who did not even contest the election. Double crazy, right!
By the way, in case you’re still wondering why anyone should win the popular votes and still lose the presidency, Clinton is not the first victim of the Electoral College system. As recently as 2000, former Vice President Al Gore won the popular votes but lost the Electoral College votes (and the presidency) to then Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who went on to serve two terms as president. Before Gore, two other candidates were victims of Electoral College. Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland also won the popular votes in the 1876 and 1888 elections, but lost the presidency via Electoral College to Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, respectively.
The question is, why would the votes of these 538 electors supersede the entire votes of the people? Well, one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, explained that the “immediate election (of the President) should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station. We cannot trust the decision to the people themselves. Rather, a “small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” Sounds like Hamilton believed that the electors are the “wise people” while the populace who voted in the general election are “morons” incapable of making the right decision.
Fast forward to December 19, 2016. What if neither Trump nor Clinton receive at least 270 votes of the electors? That’s when Congress plays kingmaker in what is known as Contingent Election. In this circumstance, the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that the President is elected by the House of Representatives, and the Vice President elected by the Senate. In the House, the President is elected from among the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. In this case, that would be Clinton, Trump and Gary Johnson. Each state’s delegation casts a single vote for President and vice president.
The votes of at least 26 states are required to elect, but D.C. does not participate in contingent election of either the President or Vice President. There is a precedent, though. It first happened in the 1824 election when the House elected John Quincy Adams president over Andrew Jackson – who actually had more popular and Electoral College votes than Adams, but fell short of the minimum required Electoral College votes, so Congress had to decide.
Henry Clay, one of the candidates in that presidential election, also was the speaker of the House at the time, but could not vote for himself, so he voted for Adams against Jackson. President Adams later “rewarded” Clay by appointing him to the prestigious cabinet post of Secretary of State. (In Nigeria, we call that “you rub my back, I rub yours.”) In the 1836 election, Martin Van Buren won the Electoral College vote and the presidency, but his controversial running mate, Col. Richard M. Johnson – who claimed to have killed a Native American chief, and committed the abominable act (at the time) of living openly with a black woman, among other controversies – failed to win the required Electoral College votes. The Senate had to elect him as Van Buren’s vice president.
One more thing. The next president of the United States will not be officially known until January 6, 2017 when a Joint Session of Congress convenes at 1 p.m. The Vice President (who is officially the president of the U.S. Senate) opens the votes from each state in alphabetical order.
He passes the votes to two from the House and two from the Senate to announce the results. House tellers include one Representative from each party and are appointed by the Speaker. At the end of the count, the Vice President then declares the name of the next President. If no one earned the required votes to be elected, that’s when the House and Senate vote for the next president and vice president, respectively.
Folks, the Electoral College system really is crazy. That’s probably why no other country on earth has adopted this process. For crying out loud, if the people’s votes don’t really count, is the U.S. presidential election really a democracy?