November 19, 2016

Electoral College: Breaking Bad

The Electoral College has graduated. Last month, it was that annoying extra step between the election and the inaugural. No one bothered to understand it.

Today, calls to discard it have revived in liberal circles, but not before we see if we can’t use it for the purpose it was put into the Constitution.

In the late 18th century, it was felt that “ordinary Americans across a vast continent would lack sufficient information to choose directly and intelligently among leading presidential candidates.” [TIME Magazine] So, Article 2 of the Constitution, which sets out the Executive branch, left the final decision to a body of more knowledgeable men.  

How it worked initially

The Electors in each state – the same number as its total of House and Senate seats – met to register their choice. The winners in each state then constituted a national field of vote getters. From among these, the candidate receiving the most votes became president and the second most, the vice president.

This method was similar to today’s winner-take-all situation (in 48 of 50 states). However, it meant that the president and vice president might be of different political persuasion.

The rise of political parties

In the early years of the Republic, there were no political parties, but this was changing rapidly at the turn of the 19th century. In 1803, the 12thAmendment was passed. Seeing the rise of parties, it allowed each one to designate a joint ticket of president and vice president.

Also, in those early years, the sense of ‘state sovereignty’ was much stronger than it is now, after two centuries of ‘one nation indivisible.’ Large and small states do not necessarily have different interests. However, interests do vary according to region – north vs south, coastal vs inland – and the types of production and economy location dictates. State laws develop to protect these interests.

States’ rights and slavery

While less discussed in civics classes, an alternative explanation for the Electoral College has to do with slavery. Northern states were more industrialized, with more citizens in more densely populated cities and towns. Southern states might have as many people, but over half a million were slaves, who could not vote.

In apportioning the number of Electors, they worked out a deal where slaves were counted as three fifths of a person. This gave more weight to slave states and acted as a buffer against abolitionist sentiments already growing in the North. In return, it the southern slave owners’ continued to support the Union.

After slavery was abolished, the College lived on. By this time, political forces in the various states had found other uses for the influence it generated and had little interest in having a direct popular vote for president and vice president.

The Electoral College Today

The details of who must certify what to whom make dry reading. In broad strokes, when we vote for President & Vice President, we are actually voting for the Electors pledged to that ticket of a particular party. Some states list the Electors by name on the ballot; others just show the candidates.

In Maine and Nebraska, the Electors are apportioned to the direct popular vote. In round numbers for ease of understanding, if a state had 10 Electors, and one ticket gets 60% of the vote, they would get six Electors. The second party ticket, say with 30% of the vote, would get three. And maybe a third party’s ticket gets 10% or one Elector.

The other 48 states are currently winner-take-all. Consider the difference. A largely inland, rural state with 20 Electoral votes, such as Pennsylvania, produces a 49-48% finish. All 20 Electors go to the winning ticket, Trump-Pence. A big coastal state with over twice the population – like California – gives all 55 of its Electors to Clinton-Kaine with a 61-33% landslide. But they don’t get any more Electors.

It’s impressive, but no matter how big the landslide in one state, if there are many small states favoring the opponent, the Electoral College may be pledged to elect the loser of the popular vote. [NY Times].

Faithless Electors? Moral Electors!

The thing many people didn’t realize till a certain petition started going around last week is that the Electors are not absolutely bound to vote as they are pledged. They can break the faith, although they will have to pay a fine for doing so. Their mandate, remember, is to choose the best person for the very weighty job of US President.

Already, two have said they intend to do that. According to Bi-Partisan Report (which, really, is a bit partisan) ‘Washington state elector Bret Chiafalo and Colorado elector Michael Baca have launched what they call “Moral Electors” in an attempt to persuade their colleagues to dump Trump along with them before he can officially take office. The lucky number of fellow Electors' support needed to block Trump from gaining the presidency is 37.’

The petition for this move is up on and has already garnered over 4.3 million signatures. That’s a record! It doesn’t mean they’ll get the necessary other 35 Electors. But it’s definitely in the ‘nothing ventured; nothing gained’ category.

It’s a gamble

At the very least, this many and more signatures send a strong message to the Trump administration that they may not want to run rough-shod over Obamacare, Social Security, hard-won LGBTQ and gender rights, labor and the environment.

If successful, this petition might hand the presidency back to Clinton come December. That would be unprecedented. And it might turn those snarky troll comments on the blog sites into nasty, even physical reactions from the currently gloating Trump supporters.

It is a decision not to be taken lightly. But it may also be seen as citizens using one of the many opportunities for correction and redress that are built into the US legal system.

Still, most of the ‘official’ responses to the 2016 outcome have called for cool heads, warm hearts, forgiveness and re-unification of the factions in US society. As noted in an earlier article, the rhetoric is pure Gandhi. This petition is his march to the sea.

– Karen Lee, DAGR Chair


For more details about Electoral College history -
“The Real Reason for the Electoral College Exists,” Akhil Reed Amar, TIME Magazine, Nov. 10, 2016.

Long, detailed info from Wikipedia

Grab a pencil (or calculator) and play around with the percentages -
2016 Election Results, interactive map, NY Times

State of play, moves to reverse the EC vote

Petition for Electoral College to vote for Hillary
Click for yourself if you’re of a mind. Share widely, too!