Due to a recent episode of John Oliver’s political satire HBO series “Last Week Tonight,” there has been renewed discussion about how the American president is elected. The episode’s premise, a premise supported by many on Guam, is that U.S. territories are not equal to the U.S. mainland because U.S. citizens in the territories are denied the right to vote for president. That premise is completely wrong and needs to be corrected. When it comes to voting for president, Guam is very much equal to the U.S. mainland in that even citizens on the mainland do not have the right to vote for the president. The U.S. Constitution has never given the people at large the right to vote for president. The only people in the U.S. who possess the constitutional right to vote for president are the people chosen to be electors (see the U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 1, clause 2, and the 12th Amendment ratified in 1804).
The number of electors from each state is equal to the number of senators and representatives from that state in Congress In 1961, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified giving the District of Columbia the right to appoint electors, and based on the amendment’s provision, D.C. has three electoral votes. Based on federal law, the total number of electors is set at 538.
How are the electors elected? The Constitution says that each state shall appoint its electors in any manner it sees fit to adopt. Over the years, each state and D.C. have adopted a procedure whereby the people elect their electors on Election Day in November of a presidential election year. The people think they are voting for president, but they are not. They are only electing the electors.