Another look at the Electoral College | As It Turns Out

Several people I’ve talked with recently mentioned they didn’t entirely understand our Electoral College. It seems a good time to take a look-see.

Why is there an Electoral College? The framers of the Constitution decided to treat the presidential elections differently than other elections. Most Constitution historians agree that it was because, in 1787, the country was deeply divided by states that had slaves and states that didn’t.

Slave-holding states knew they would have less power with a presidential popular vote because they had fewer eligible voters. The Electoral College was a compromise. Slaves would count as three-fifths of a person for representation.

Another reason was because both news and people traveled at a much slower pace in those days. It was much easier for local regions and their politicians to exchange information than it was on a national 13-state level.

What is an Electoral College? It is a select group of 538 representing each state and Washington, D.C. in presidential elections. It votes for each of us. Washington has 12 electors.

“Typically, electors are citizens nominated in recognition of service and dedication to their political party,” says a Washington State Government website. Electors represent the number of its Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress.

In comparison to our 12, California has 55, Oregon has seven, and Idaho has four.

How does the Electoral College work? Americans elect their representatives in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress by popular vote. Winners are directly chosen by each citizen who votes.

As it turns out, however, our recent votes for either Obama/Biden or Romney/Ryan were votes for Electoral College nominees associated with their particular political party. State electors choose the winner of our popular vote. Electoral votes are the most important constitutionally and so the ones that count in the end. Popular votes are not guaranteed to stand because the Electoral College hasn’t yet cast its vote.

After our voting process in November, the electors meet in their state Dec. 17 to vote for president and vice president. On Jan. 6, 2013, Congress meets to count these electoral votes and the Vice President and President of the Senate announce the result. The winner must have at least 270 out of a total of 538 electoral votes. Inauguration Day follows at high noon on Jan. 20.

Why is the Electoral College so controversial? One particular downside is the candidate who wins the popular vote doesn’t always win the election. This has happened four times in U.S. history: in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.

The Bush/Gore bedlam is still fresh in our minds. When the dust settled, Gore had won the popular vote and Bush had won the electoral vote. The 2000 election fracas, along with the idea that a candidate can win a state by just a handful of votes by getting all the electors, led some states to sign an agreement promising to give their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. But this is only possible when states totaling the 270 majority of electoral votes enter into the agreement. So far, eight states and Washington, D.C. (totaling 132 electoral votes) have signed the “National Popular Vote” bill. Washington signed in 2009.

“Instead of trying to abolish the Electoral College through a constitutional amendment, which small states might block, National Popular Vote devised a way to get around it: States agree by law to cast all of their electoral votes for the first-place finisher in the national popular vote,” writes Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane.

No one knows if this initiative will succeed or not. If it does, we’ll be one step closer to making the presidential race one where every vote counts.

— Marylin Olds is an opinion columnist for the Kingston Community News. Comments are welcome at marylin.olds@gmail.com.


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