Despite the fact that we are going to the polls to cast our ballots, we won’t actually be voting for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.
We instead will be voting for “electors” who will cast the actual ballots for president. Those ballots won’t even be counted until December. That is when the “real” presidential election takes place.
A curious artifact of our Constitution, the presidential election is actually decided by 538 electors who make up the Electoral College. Some people want to amend the Constitution to get eliminate the Electoral College; they instead want the presidency to be decided by a straight-up popular vote. Their argument is that a popular vote by its very nature ensures that the candidate with the most votes wins. There have been instances in history where a president ascends to the White House by winning the Electoral College vote, but not the popular vote (George W. Bush won this way in 2000). Also, it is argued, the Electoral College creates many areas of the country that are non-competitive, and therefore the votes of people in the minority don’t count for much (Republican voters in deep-blue Massachusetts, for example, have little reason to cast a ballot for president).
Despite these arguments — which are no doubt important — I predict that many Americans will wake up Wednesday morning and be grateful for it. Here;s why:
First, the Electoral College makes election rigging difficult. If the nation elected its president with just a popular vote, rigging could take place anywhere in the country. And because of that, schemes would be hard to detect. Dividing our national presidential election into 50 smaller elections frustrates the schemes of would-be cheaters and let’s officials know where to concentrate their efforts on ensuring accuracy.
Second, the Electoral College provides decisive victories. There will be about 130 million votes cast this year. Numbers this large are hard for most people to comprehend, and the differences between the two major candidates can seem negligible.
In 2012, the difference between President Obama and Mitt Romney’s vote totals was only about 5 million votes out of 127 million cast. Some elections are much closer, and such small margins can seem unclear and inconclusive. The Electoral College tends to make victories appear clear and margins distinct. In 2012, despite the 4 percent margin in the popular vote, the Electoral College vote was a decisive 332- to 206.
Such numbers are easy to interpret and provide newly elected presidents with the legitimacy they need to govern. This year, Donald Trump has flirted with the idea of not conceding the election to Hillary Clinton, because according to him, “It’s rigged.” If the current opinion polls stay true, Hillary Clinton likely will win. Her victory in the Electoral College, which is currently expected to be large, will make any claims of “rigging” look ludicrous.
Third, the Electoral College isolates problems — if there are any — to specific states. If there is to be a question about the sanctity or accuracy of the vote count, the Electoral College effectively isolates those questions to specific states. In 2000, when there were questions about the outcome, the subsequent litigation and recount were isolated to a few counties in one state (Florida).
In 2004, there were questions about the close outcome, but again, those questions were isolated to Ohio. Imagine if the recount in 2000 were to take place in every precinct in every state across the country. There would be widespread and endless challenges, litigation and chaos. The Electoral College prevents this.
American elections are messy business. There are primaries, caucuses, general elections and electors. There is nothing simple about our system. But the Electoral College, despite its faults, makes the business of electing a president much less messy. And it just may be a lifesaver this year.
Joseph E. Uscinski is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.