As the United States inches closer to the 2020 presidential election Nov. 3, UCF Professor Aubrey Jewett explains the pros and cons of the Electoral College, Florida’s role as a swing state, and what major factor could delay knowing the outcome on election night.
Jewett is an internationally recognized political scientist and co-author of the book Politics in Florida. Jewett also served as a congressional aide for a now-retired congressman and as president of the Florida Political Science Association. This semester, he is teaching State Government and Public Policy, Florida Politics, and Scope and Methods of Political Science. Jewett joined UCF in 1995 and earned his doctorate in political science from Florida State University in 1997.
What factors have made this presidential election unique?
AJ: Two factors make this election unique: One is Donald Trump and the other is coronavirus. We have not had a president like President Trump in my lifetime. Presidential role theory suggests that presidents act and behave in certain ways. Regardless of age and party, most presidents conform to that. President Trump has done things differently compared to traditional presidents of either party.
Clearly beyond the candidates and personalities, the pandemic is something the country hasn’t been through in a century. It has affected the way Trump and Joe Biden campaign. It has affected the way people vote. We’ve seen a lot more people request mail-in ballots. And each candidates’ response to the pandemic may certainly be one of the bigger factors on choosing which candidate they vote for.
In the last six presidential elections, [Florida has] voted three times for Republican, three times for Democrat and all six times for the winner.
Why is Florida such an important state in presidential elections?
AJ: Empirically, Florida has been the most important swing state over the last 24 years. In the last six presidential elections, we voted three times for Republican, three times for Democrat and all six times for the winner. The margin of victory for the winner has been the smallest of any of the 50 states. On average, the president who won Florida won by 2.6 percent over those six elections. Ohio is the only other state that has voted for the winner six times in a row and their margin of victory for winners has been 4.6 percent. We have 29 electoral votes, which is the most of any of the historical swing states. That makes Florida such an important and prime target, and the candidates are aware of that.
How does the Electoral College process work, and why do we have it?
AJ: We have it because it’s the way the framers of the Constitution set it up more than 200 years ago. The framers didn’t trust direct democracy — they didn’t want the masses to necessarily have the final say on who would be president because they knew based on history that in democracies, a lot of times the masses didn’t make considered choices. They also really wanted to protect the role of the states in choosing the president. Each state wanted to have some influence, and particularly the smaller states didn’t want the larger states to have all the say politically. So they came up with the Electoral College.
Each state gets electoral votes based on their membership in Congress. Even the smallest states get at least three electoral votes (one for each senator, and at least one for a representative). Larger states have more members of the House of Representatives so they get more electoral votes. So instead of a national popularity contest, we have a state-by-state race. It is a contest to win states and electoral votes of those states. As a candidate, you have to win a majority of electoral votes (270) to become president. There are 435 members in the House and 100 members in the Senate – that’s 535, plus by constitutional amendment we give three electoral votes to Washington, D.C. As a president, you try to win enough states so that you can win at least 270 electoral votes.
In 48 of the 50 states, it’s a winner-take-all race. In other words, if you win the state of Florida by even just one popular vote, you win all 29 electoral votes. The two exceptions to winner-take-all are Maine and Nebraska. They have a congressional apportionment system. The statewide winner wins two electoral votes for the two U.S. senators and then the winner of each district will win one electoral vote. In 2016, Trump lost Maine statewide but he won one of the congressional districts, so he won one electoral vote from Maine.
What are the pros and cons of the Electoral College?
AJ: The biggest criticism is occasionally the winner of the national popular vote doesn’t become president. We’ve had that happen twice in the last 20 years – in 2000 when George W. Bush beat Al Gore, and four years ago when Hillary Clinton won by more than 2 million votes but lost in the Electoral College. People argue, “This is democracy? How can the winner of the popular vote not win the presidency?”
But in terms of defending the Electoral College, it keeps a vibrant and important role for the states and particularly protects the role of small states — they have a larger percentage of power in the Electoral College system than they would have in just a national popular vote. When the original states agreed to form the country, that was part of the deal.
Is there a possibility of reforming the way elections are run?
AJ: There have been a lot of critics of the Electoral College. Those critics have usually been Democrats and more progressive because from their perspective, they’ve come up on the short end of the stick twice in the last 20 years. It’s a difficult thing to change because it’s in the Constitution. To change the Electoral College means you’d have to have a constitutional amendment. We’ve only had 27 amendments in more than 200 years, and 10 of them happened in the first two years right after the Constitution. So it’s not impossible, but it’s certainly a difficult road and a hard process to change.
Do you think we’ll know the winner of the presidential race on election night?
AJ: It depends on how close the race is, and this year might take a lot longer to tabulate the results because of all the mail-in ballots. Florida is a little bit better off compared to a number of other states because we’ve been doing mail-in ballots for a long time, and we have state laws that say the supervisor of elections can start tabulating those mail ballots before the election. But a lot of states do not have that rule. Some of them have a rule that you have to wait until election night. Historically that hasn’t been a problem for those states because they haven’t had huge numbers of mail-in votes but this year they probably will. There are also some states, like California and Oregon, that allow ballots to count as long as they are postmarked by the election. Those states historically vote for the Democratic candidate, so those mail-in ballots may not be a factor for them in projecting a winner for president, but in other more competitive states who have the same rule, it could be a factor if the race is close. So it’s really going to be interesting to see how all of this affects the process.