Electoral College 101: How it works. Why we're stuck with it.

Why is 270 the magic number on Election Day? Because it's the number of Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. A look at the messy system the Founding Fathers bequeathed us.

By , Staff Writer

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    Fifth-grade student Therese McCarthy holds a sign representing Pennsylvania during a mock Electoral College lesson at the Erie Day School in Erie, Pa., on Nov. 2. McCarthy and her classmates mailed polling ballot notecards to students in 200 schools across the country to be used as data for the Electoral College program in advance of the 2012 presidential election. This year, Obama "won" in her class's polling with 417 delegates to Romney's 121.
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The Electoral College: It’s much more than a boring vestige of 18th century political theory. It’s also the process by which US presidents are actually chosen, and a creaky machine that’s driven voters batty for over 200 years.

But it’s in the US Constitution (Article II, Section I) and it’s not going away anytime soon.

So here’s what you need to know about it to pass your Decoder 101 final exam:

Recommended: Know your US presidents? See if D.C. Decoder can stump you!

• Point one is that under the Electoral College you don’t vote directly for your favored presidential candidate. You may think that you do, and that’s what the line on your ballot may say, but what you’re really voting for is a slate of state electors who say they also support the nominee in question.

If “Dancing with the Stars” worked this way, you wouldn’t vote directly for a couple, but for judges who’d already indicated they favored your choice. These judges would then travel to Philadelphia via horse-drawn carriage for a season finale aired live from Constitution Hall and hosted by a Ben Franklin hologram.

OK, that last part we made up. But the part about the elected electors is true.

• Point two is that each state gets one elector per member of Congress. If you’re Alaska, you get three, because you’ve got two senators and one representative. If you’re California, you’ve got 55, because you’ve got two senators and 53 representatives. The total of US electoral votes is 538. That’s why 270 will be the magic number on Election Day night – it’s half of 538, plus one.

We understand the math there may be more than any actual pundits in the crowd can handle. Our advice to them is to just relax and lie down on a green room couch until New York Times polling pro Nate Silver walks in and explains it to you.

• Point three is that a candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state gets all its electoral votes. The exceptions to this rule are Nebraska and Maine, where the state winner gets the two electoral votes derived from the two senators, while the candidate who wins each congressional district gets the electoral vote derived from that representative.

Got that? No? Perhaps that’s why the other states don’t do it: the Electoral College is complicated enough without adding layers.

Also there is no truth to the rumor that Nebraska and Maine are pushing for a constitutional amendment allowing the winners of their respective states, if different, to fight a lasso vs. chain saw cage match for two extra electors.

• Point four is that the electors elected by the electorate cast their votes in their own special election. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday after Election Day, the electors meet in their respective states for their choices to be recorded on a special certificate which is forwarded to Congress and the National Archives as part of that cycle’s official records.

Previous to this, state governors produce a “Certificate of Ascertainment” for Washington, which lists all the presidential candidates and their electors, who won, and so forth. We’d go further into this whole fascinating paperwork thing except we’d like some readers still awake at the end. If you want to know more you can read about it here.

• Point five is that technically speaking the election of the president of the United States takes place during a joint session of Congress on January 6th following Election Day. That’s when members of the House and Senate meet in the House chamber to preside over the counting of electors’ votes, which apparently take a long time to get to DC.

“The Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results of the vote. The President of the Senate then declares which persons, if any, have been elected President and Vice President of the United States,” concludes a National Archives summary of the process.

“If any?” Oy vey. We’d forgotten – a 269 to 269 tie throws the whole thing into the House of Representatives. That’s a subject for another story.

• Finally, our sixth and last point is that we got into this mess – excuse me, system – because the Founding Fathers faced a difficult and delicate task in establishing the way the infant US would pick its executive leader.

Think what it was like back in 1787. A group of 13 states, some small, some large, some slave, some free, was attempting to put together a process which satisfied them all. Plus there was no Google Maps, so travel between the ex-colonies was difficult and prone to wrong turns.

Many delegates to the constitutional convention just wanted the new president to be picked by Congress. But others were worried that this would lead to intrigue, and that the new leader would possibly feel beholden to those who chose him. (Yes, at the time they thought political parties, or “faction,” to be poisonous. Ha! If they saw how smoothly the president and Congress work together today to avoid doing anything about the looming “fiscal cliff” they’d realize their mistake.)

A core group feared direct democracy. The result was the Electoral College, a process which at the time seemed to stand between a one-person-one-vote approach and a congressional choice model.

The system’s details have changed over the years. At first, the electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, with the first place finisher winning the top spot, and the second place finisher gaining the vice-presidency. After a few tries this was changed so that the electors cast a ballot for a two-person ticket.

(Here’s an interesting parlor game: try to think of the most poisonous Prez/VP pairing you can come up with under the old rules. My best try is President Al Gore and Vice President Dick Cheney.)

Today the system serves to balance the power of big and small states while spreading political power around the regions. At least a bit. Especially if you live in Ohio.

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