What if I told you that out of the last three presidents of America (since year 2000), two of them did not “win” their first term elections?
In the United States, there are 538 Electoral College votes that decide who becomes the president “irrespective” of the popular or regular votes. For example, Hillary Clinton won the popular votes in 2016 by almost three million votes, but Trump had more electoral college votes and became the president. In the year 2000, George Bush Jr was behind Al Gore by 500,000 votes but George Bush became president because he had five more Electoral College votes.
Are you with me so far?
Electoral College votes allocated to each state is different. For example, California has 55 votes, New York, 29 and Nevada six.
Fortunately, the candidate who wins the popular votes of a state also wins all the electoral college votes. Even though this is not mandated by law. For instance, President Trump won 51% of the popular votes of Florida and so was given all its 29 Electoral College votes. You need 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency.
Let’s give an example with Nigeria. Let’s say Kano, Katsina and Kebbi states all have 15 electoral college votes each. This is a very simplified example. If Buhari wins Kano and loses both Katsina and Kebbi to Atiku, he would have lost the election because he would have had only 15 Electoral College votes while Atiku would have 30 – even though his six million popular votes from Kano alone are more than the three million Atiku got in both states combined.
The above three paragraphs were what I posted on the social media on November 4, 2020. The response was overwhelming. Obviously, people understood my own version of the explanation of the Electoral College. ”I have been trying to learn this for years! Thank you, ” a certain director of a popular bank said.
A professor said: “Comprehensive, yet simplified. Good job Ibraheem Dooba.”
Many people shared it all over the internet. As I was writing this column, I received a Google Alert that my name was mentioned on a particular website; and when I checked, it was this same explanation that they published.
Even Kadaria Ahmad of RadioNow called me from Lagos to interview me. More on that shortly.
Therefore, I assume that you have understood this explanation too because it has been tested with different audiences. If you did, please stop reading now because it is about to get technical and the remaining part hasn’t been tested with any audience. But I’m writing this extended version because of the questions Kadaria Ahmad asked me on the radio programme. And also, because some social media friends complained that I omitted some technical information.
They were right. But if I had included every detail, no one would have understood and it wouldn’t be a kid’s guide any more. It is for this reason that most people, including many Americans, don’t understand the electoral college. And it is not for lack of information. The internet is full of such explanations, YouTube alone is laden with them but no one understands because the concept is counterintuitive and not immediately relatable; and the teachers are not helping!
As a teacher therefore, I presented the basics of the concept first so that the student would understand enough to ask important questions, getting them ready to flesh out the knowledge by themselves.
Therefore, the remaining information is structured in a question and answer format as I was asked by Kadaria and friends on social media.
How did they come by the 538 figure?
My boss and editorial board chairman, Malam Mahmud Jega, answered that question in his contribution to my post:
”My only comment here is, if we are to adopt the Electoral College system here, Kano, Katsina and Kebbi will not have the same number of votes each because it is roughly equal to the state’s population. Roughly; because an American state’s Electoral College votes are the number of its senators and Congressmen. While each state, no matter how big or how small, has two senators, the number of Congressmen is proportional to its population.”
Let me explain the Chairman’s comment. The United States has 50 states. Every state, whether big or small, is given two senators. Just like Nigeria where every state – from the largest such as Kano to the smallest such as Bayelsa – has three senators.
Accordingly, two Electoral College votes are given to each state. With 100 senators in the Senate, that is 100 votes. Also, there are 435 members of Congress or House of Representatives in America. Unlike the senators, their number per state is determined according to population. This is also like Nigeria, Kano and Lagos each has 24 reps, Niger, my state, has 10 because we have fewer people.
If you add the 100 and 435 from the two houses, that is 535. The remaining three votes are allocated to Washington DC to make the total of 538 Electoral College votes. This number has remained consistent since 1964.
Who are the Electoral College delegates who cast the votes and how are they selected?
There are selected in two ways. Through the general election or by the state’s political leadership.
Is it a law that says all the electoral college votes should go to the candidates who wins a state?
No. But that has become the tradition. It is more of a precedence than law. But when some delegates from Washington went against that tradition, they were fined $1,000.
Actually, two states, Maine and Nebraska don’t do what the other 48 states do, theirs depends on the results of the congregational elections.
Who created this system?
America’s founding fathers. It is in Article II Section I Clause II of the constitution.
It is said that it was a compromise system. Many did not easily agree to form a United States, so the proposal was hastily agreed according to some records. It was a way of the founding fathers enacting an indirect democracy. They didn’t want the people to choose the president, because at that time, some voters didn’t even know the candidates and due to the rural nature of some states, they were afraid that the candidates would only campaign in the populous cities, thereby sidelining them.
Do Americans like the system?
It depends on whom you ask. Since the country was founded, there has been 700 proposals to amend it. Many contend that it has kept their country united for more than 200 years. Others say it is not a fair system and has outlived its purpose.