So the election has happened but there are still a lot of questions in this unprecedented race for the presidency. Even though the news may be telling you who won, technically we don’t really know yet, and that’s because the popular vote doesn’t determine who gets to sit in the Oval Office – the electoral college does.
Every American adult who has participated in the election cast what is known as a popular vote. Although every vote absolutely matters, the system is rigged so that votes aren’t the only thing that matters: in a seemingly bizarre twist, 2.9 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election (so much for her being unelectable) yet she didn’t become the 45th President of the United States, Trump did. And by the way, that wasn’t even the worst outcome — in the 1824 election, a candidate from the Democratic-Republican Party (try to wrap your brain around that) managed to lose over ten percent of the popular vote and still finangled to become President John Quincy Adams. How? You can blame the electoral college for that.
What is the electoral college?
To put it plainly, every state (but not Puerto Rico) has an assigned number of electoral votes that go to the candidate who won the most popular votes in that state. So even in a case where the two candidates could have a near identical number of popular votes, one of them will get ALL the electoral votes for that state. This “winner takes all” approach doesn’t apply in only two states: Maine and Nebraska, where the electoral votes can be split to reward the winner of a particular geographic zone.
If you think that the other states have a strange or unfair system, it gets worse. The electoral college is technically a group of 538 appointed “electors” whose job it is to cast their vote for president according to the vote of the people. However, in some states the electoral college is not legally obligated to vote with the popular vote, which has led to much debate about the system’s legitimacy.
So, even though most TV news channels will give their “projections” as the votes from each state are counted, the results aren’t really final until the electoral college casts their votes which is typically in mid-December. Typically the electoral college does vote with the popular vote – which is why the media projections are usually reliable – but there have been times when they have not, and that is why many states have made laws that penalize “faithless electors” who vote against the wishes of the people.
Some people debate that the electoral college is necessary and posit that it helps keep the balance between densely populated (and largely liberal-leaning) cities and the sparsely populated rural areas, ensuring relatively equal representation for both. Others see this as anti-democratic (“the popular vote truly represents the wants of the people”).
But few know that the system actually came about as a compromise. When America was in its infancy, there weren’t a lot of contemporary examples of how a country could run outside of being a monarchy. So the new American leaders did the best they could think of. Some of the Founding Fathers actually didn’t think that regular voters were informed enough to pick a president themselves (especially curious when you consider that only white land-owning men could vote at the time). Others worried that if Congress appointed a President — he wouldn’t ever truly be independent from said Congress unless he served only one term. The promise of a second term was supposed to incentivise a president to act well, and they clearly couldn’t anticipate someone like Trump. But, of course, there was also an issue of slavery, with slaves counted as ⅗ of a person for the purposes of the electoral college.
The whole issue deserves a separate post, but what matters now is that this is the system we have to contend with for now. Whoever becomes president, needs to win 270 electoral votes. In a nice case of political karma, Hillary Rodham Clinton is now an elector for the State of New York and her vote matters.
What happens when elections are contested?
It seems like President Trump isn’t too happy with the way that vote counting has happened since election day, so much so that he is taking Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania to court and demanding recounts in states such as Nevada and Wisconsin. This is a pretty normal reaction when a candidate contests election results and it has happened before.
Although there is a lot of fear that there won’t be a smooth transfer of power, the elections themselves being contested is not that uncommon. For example, the 2000 election was another instance where the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the election, and Florida became the state that was contested by Al Gore due to issues with counting hole-punch ballots. When the votes were being counted, many ballots were not counted because the holes were not properly punched out. Gore and his team sued to try and have those ballots counted by hand and was challenged by Bush. By the time Gore eventually won the court battle, the deadline for the electoral college was quickly approaching, leaving no time to count those votes which resulted in Bush winning the state and ultimately the presidency.
Election contention is commonly resolved through recounts in certain states where the race is called by slim margins. However, what isn’t common is for a candidate to claim victory before the results are clear or for a candidate to insinuate that properly sent mail-in ballots should not be counted after election day regardless of their postage date – and that’s probably because that would be unconstitutional and anti-democratic.
After recounts and lawsuits are settled that is usually it. Next the electoral college votes and we end up with our president elect… that is unless there is a tie in which case the constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to choose the president with a simple majority vote. So…
Why does president Trump think that he can use the Supreme Court to elect him?
Well, that’s because they technically could, and that has to do with those lawsuits being filed is key states. In states like Pennsylvania, the President was asking for the vote count to stop despite his opposite wish for Arizona. The only way a case like that could make its way to the SUpreme Court is if it goes through a lengthy appeal process and then for the SCOTUS to choose to take on the case. This is most likely the reason why Trump and the republican-held senate made sure they filled Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s vacant seat with the very conservative Amy Coney Barret. Now, such a decision could fall on the shoulders of someone who may feel obligated to rule in favor of the President who appointed her.
This possibility is unlikely largely because, as said before, to stop the counting of legal ballots would be illegal and unconstitutional. Despite what the President has said, there has been no evidence of widespread ballot fraud or illegal voting as some of these lawsuits are over groups of less than 100 ballots and Joe Biden’s lead has far exceeded that.
The fact is, voter fraud is extremely rare and Trump’s claims are baseless.