Majority Rules? Not Quite

Would you be surprised if your friend told you that the “Majority Rules” rule doesn’t apply to the election of an American President? You might think that this is undemocratic, or even a bit extreme! How did Donald Trump, who had 2 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton  nationally, end up in the White House in 2017?

Every Election Day, voters may think they’re casting a ballot for a presidential candidate, but in reality they’re actually voting for a slate of electors who make a pledge to vote for the more popular candidate in that state. The Electors are made up of a body called the Electoral College, and it takes 270 votes for a candidate to win the White House. Take our very own state of New Jersey, for example. We are represented by 14 electors in the electoral college, and our electors will meet with electors from other states on December 14th every general election year, and all the electors’ votes will be certified by Congress on January 6th. This time around, New Jersey’s 14 electoral votes will be counted for Joe Biden. 

You may be wondering what happens if an elector decides to vote against the popular vote of their state. There are usually a small number of these faithless electors in each election cycle. In 2016, there were seven faithless electors, including David Mulinix of Hawaii, who cast his vote for Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, Donald Trump lost Chistopher Suprun of Texas to John Kasich. However, these faithless electors don’t usually make a significant difference to overturn the electoral college decision, unless it comes down to the needle. While many laws have been passed by the states to punish and remove these rogue faithless electors, many of them do not set clear penalty guidelines, and so far only 33 states (not including the District of Columbia) have prohibited them. 

But how are the number of electoral votes for each state determined, and how does the math work out? Take, for instance, Texas and Vermont. Texas has a stunning population of 25 million people, and it gets 36 representatives in the House and two senators in the Senate. Vermont, meanwhile, has a population of only 630,000 people, and so it only gets one representative in the House along with two senators. Representatives in each state each represent roughly the same number of citizens. In the Electoral College, a state gets the same number of delegates as their Congressional representatives, along with two additional delegates for each Senator. As you might be thinking, this makes the number of people each delegate represents dramatically different along state lines. To put this into perspective, each electoral delegate in the Cowboy State represents three times the amount of citizens as one in Green Mountain State. 

For any Republicans out there, you may be pondering why Donald Trump never visited New Jersey, and for any Democrats out there, you may be wondering why Joe Biden rarely visited New Jersey. To put it simply, it’s not that New Jersey’s 14 electoral votes aren’t important; rather, it’s that New Jersey is not a swing state. Political analysts commonly refer to swing states as those where the polling data shows less than a 5 percent margin between the two candidates. Florida was a swing state in November 2020, and Donald Trump carried it by roughly 3 percent, accounting for 400,000 votes. Polling averages confirmed these polls. Other swing states included Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Ohio.

In this politically polarized era, we’re constantly arguing about virtually everything, and whether or not to keep the Electoral College is certainly a controversy. A study done after the 2016 election found that voters in the state of Michigan had roughly 51 times the amount of influence on the result of the election as a voter from a state like Missouri, Mississippi, or New Jersey. Democrats argued on the basis of this study that the Electoral College makes some voters more powerful than others, while Republicans strongly benefit from the system and have no intention of lobbying against it. Swing states can change, and party positions can change, but one thing is for sure: those who benefit the most from the system and are likely to remain in power because of it, and will always be the fiercest advocates for the Electoral College.