Liberally Speaking 9/25/08

Back to (Electoral) College

Sept. 25, 2008
By Steve Mount

Every four years, we Americans go back to college — the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is important because despite conventional wisdom, it is not presidential candidates that we will vote for in November but instead the members of this exclusive college.

Officially, the president is chosen not by the people but by the states, and each state has as many votes as it has members of Congress. All states get at least three electoral votes — one for each senator and representative. Vermont, then, only gets three. California, by contrast, has 55.

These elector counts are how commentators can tell you how many electoral votes a candidate needs to win the election. There are 100 senators and 435 representatives in Congress, for a total of 535 electoral votes. Add three more for Washington, D.C., for a total of 538. You need half plus one to win outright, or 270.

It is these electors you are selecting when you cast your ballot in November, not the exact candidate, though each political party chooses its electors. In most states, including Vermont, the slate of electors that garners the most votes will vote in the Electoral College. The electors from the other parties get to watch from home like the rest of us.

After the electors all vote, the votes are bundled up and mailed off to Congress, where they are eventually opened and tallied, and a winner is officially declared.

This year, Election Day falls on Nov. 4. Elector Day, when the electors gather in their state capitals to cast their votes, is Dec. 15. Finally, Congress will count the votes on Jan. 6.

Most of this process is pro forma after Election Day. Though electors are not technically bound to vote for the candidate they are pledged to, they almost always do; and unless an elector goes against the grain, the reading of the votes in Congress is no surprise.

Why so convoluted a system? Why do we not just vote for the presidential candidate directly? The answer goes back to the great compromises the Framers made when they wrote the Constitution back in 1787.

The Electoral College does a few things. The biggest effect it has is to protect the smaller states, like Vermont, from the whims of the larger states. For one thing, large-state favorite sons can only get as many electoral votes as their state has; for another, because of equal suffrage in the Senate, smaller states have disproportionately large voting power in the College.

Another effect is our quadrennial reminder of the power of representative democracy. Just as we elect senators and representatives to weigh our demands with those of the nation, we elect electors to weigh our vote with the choices available. Even if the Electoral College always ends up voting as expected, there is always that slim possibility they could change their collective mind.

I have vacillated on the issue of the Electoral College over time, from supporter, to detractor, to compromiser.

As a resident of a small state, I am happy that my vote counts for more than a New York vote or a California vote. I am, however, uncomfortably happy, this being the equivalent of electoral schadenfreude.

The populist idea is a straight national popular vote. After the election debacle of 2000, I cringe, though, at any national plan. If there is dispute about the national vote, do we mandate Florida-style recounts in all 50 states? Would this grind the process to a halt?

Undoubtedly we could work something out, where recounts are by precinct or district or state, but still the prospect of needing a national recount is plausible. At least with the Electoral College as it is now, a recount in New York or New Hampshire does not necessitate a recount here.

A promising compromise is an interstate compact whereby, once enough states to total 270 or more electoral vote have signed on, those states would change their laws to select the slate of electors for the winner of the national vote, regardless of the state vote.

In any case, it is too late for change this year, so the Electoral College process is going to go forward at least one more time. So, revel in our little electoral idiosyncrasy and, as homework, try to find out the names of the electors you’ll be voting for when you cast your vote on Election Day.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.