Here’s how the Electoral College works
Vail, CO, Colorado
The season is upon us ” the season of mud-slinging, elbow-throwing, venom, vitriol and disparagement which marks the hallowed institution known as national elections.
Remembering the morass of the 2000 presidential election in which Al Gore out-polled George W. Bush in the popular vote but, after considerable hang-wringing and the intervention of the Supreme Court, the electoral vote was awarded to Bush ” it seems a quick primer on the electoral college might be timely.
Each state is allocated a number of Electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (always 2) plus the number of its U.S. Representatives. Colorado has nine electors.
On Election Day, people in each state cast their ballots for the party slate of Electors representing their choice for president and vice president. Whichever party slate wins the most popular votes in the state becomes that state’s electors. The two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where two Electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remainder by the popular vote within each congressional district.
On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December in election years, each state’s electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their electoral votes.
The candidate for president with the most electoral votes (provided that it is an absolute majority) is declared president. In the event that no one obtains an absolute majority (for example, if the vote were split between 3 or more candidates), the House of Representatives selects the president from among the top three contenders with each state casting only one vote and an absolute majority of the states being required to elect.
Why do that?
So much for the “how.” Next is “why?”
In electing a president, the problems that the Founding Fathers were attempting to address were:
– The 13 states were both large and small, each jealous of their own rights and powers and suspicious of any central national government;
– The nation then contained only 4 million people spread up and down the Atlantic seaboard and only tenuously connected. National campaigns were, accordingly, impractical if not impossible.
– The common perception of the time held that political parties were at best mischievous if not downright evil. So, in that more genteel society, it was considered gauche for gentlemen to campaign for office (a common refrain of the day was that “the office should seek the man, the man should not seek the office”).
The Constitutional Convention considered several possibilities in order to address these concerns. These ranged from having Congress select the president to having state legislatures select the president, to selecting the president by direct popular vote (which was rejected in large measure because the framers feared that, not having sufficient information about candidates from outside their state, people would naturally vote for “favorite sons,” and the larger states would tend to dominate the smaller).
The historical precedents for the College of Electors can be found both in the Roman Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals and the Centurial Assembly system found in the ancient Roman Republic.
The Electoral College’s advantages included:
– The manner of choosing electors was left to the individual states, thereby assuaging fears of a central national government.
– Members of Congress and federal governmental employees were barred from serving as Electors, thereby striving to maintain a balance between the executive and legislative branches.
– Each state’s electors were required to meet in their respective states rather than all together in an attempt to prevent bribery, corruption, secret dealing and foreign influence.
Over the years, there have been several curiosities that arose at least in part as a function of the Electoral College system. In addition to the Jefferson-Burr election of 1800 ” a tie that required 36 ballots to break ” these include the 1824 election in which John Quincy Adams became president despite the fact that Andrew Jackson obtained a greater proportion of the popular vote. Because four strong candidates split the vote, Jackson did not obtain the necessary absolute majority of electoral votes and, ultimately, the House selected Adams over Jackson.
The 1836 and 1872 elections caused blips of their own and the 1876 election between Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes, is still pejoratively referred to as “the fraud of the century” (the victor, Hayes, was known throughout his term by the disparaging moniker, Rutherfraud B. Hayes). Hayes was elected president despite the fact that Tilden garnered 3 percent more of the popular vote (interestingly, the dispute boiled down to an electoral controversy in Florida).
Similarly, the election of Benjamin Harrison in 1888 was one wherein the Electoral College vote went contrary to the popular vote.
The dispute over the Electoral College continues to rage. Those who decry that it has outlived its usefulness often cite the possibility of electing a minority president, the risk of so-called faithless Electors, the possibility that the role of the Electoral College depresses voter turnout, and its failure to faithfully reflect the national will. Proponents, on the other hand, defend the Electoral College system, among other reasons, upon the grounds that it contributes to the cohesiveness of the country by mandating a broad distribution of popular support to be elected president, enhances the status of minority interests, contributes to the political stability of the nation by encouraging a two-party system, and maintains a federal system of government and representation.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970/926.4461 or at his e-mail address: email@example.com.
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