You Don’t Know How Voting Works   1 comment

Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, center, carries a ballot box containing the 12 Massachusetts electoral votes for Vice President Al Gore during the Electoral College voting at the Statehouse Dec. 18, 2000, in Boston. Is the Electoral College system outdated? Pool Photo/Getty Images

Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, center, carries a ballot box containing the 12 Massachusetts electoral votes for Vice President Al Gore during the Electoral College voting at the Statehouse Dec. 18, 2000, in Boston. Pool Photo/Getty Images

Americans don’t really vote for President or Vice President.  We vote for a secret group of “Electors” that participate in a process called the Electoral College.  That’s how it’s mandated in the Constitution, and then revised by the 12th Amendment.  Your vote matters, but you don’t know who you voted for.

You didn’t vote for Obama or Romney.  You did vote for a slate of state electors that you probably have never even heard of — electors that hold the fate of our nation in the palms of their hands.  Here’s how we really elect our President.  And believe me, in our litigious society, it is all about the details.

A 1976 Elector casts her ballot.  New York delivered 41 votes to Jimmy Carter.

A 1976 Elector casts her ballot. New York delivered 41 votes to Jimmy Carter.

1. You don’t vote for the Presidential candidate of your  choice.  Ever.  You do vote for a slate of Electors.

2. The number of Electors for each state is the same number as their Congressional delegation … 1 for each Senator and US Representative.  Washington DC also has 3 electors.

3. Those Electors are selected by a process unique to each state.  In California, the process is different for each party.

4. The Electors cannot be a member of Congress or an employee of the federal government.

5. The Electors are under no federal obligation to vote for the candidate that they are pledged to, though 25 states and Washington, DC do require them to do so.  The other 25 states … electors can vote for anyone they choose, becoming “faithless electors.”

6. The Electors are selected on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in years divisible by 4 (yes, that’s our election day).  The Electors, in turn, vote on the December Monday following the 2nd Wednesday in each State Capitol (December 17 this year).  They must vote for a President and a Vice President separately, and one of those must not be from their state.  The votes are then sealed.

Note that most states have a “winner take all” structure for awarding their electoral votes, but that is a state decision.  In Maine and Nebraska, the electors are awarded individually to the winner of each congressional district’s votes, with the two extra votes going to the over-all state winner.

The President of the Senate opens each state's votes in front of a joint session of Congress on January 6.

The President of the Senate opens each state’s votes in front of a joint session of Congress on January 6.

7. The President of the Senate then opens and counts the votes in front of both houses of Congress on January 6.

8. If no one receives a majority of votes (270), then the US House of Representatives chooses the President from the Top 3 candidates with each state casting one vote.  If no Vice Presidential candidate receives a majority, then the Senate chooses the Vice President from the Top 2 candidates.

Oddities in the history of the Electoral College:

  • 1800 – an electoral tie, decided amicably in the House
  • 1824 – debatable if the popular vote winner won, especially since not all states even used a popular vote
  • 1876 – amid vote tampering and political machinations, the result seems to not reflect the popular vote
  • 1888 – the clearest 19th century example of the popular vote winner (Democrat Samuel J Tilden) not being the electoral winner (Republican Rutherford B Hayes)
  • 2000 – Gore won a plurality (but not a majority) of the national popular vote by over 540,000.  For the electoral college, however, Florida was a mess with hotly contested recounts over ballots that were allowed, or not allowed, in the official count.  Ultimately, the US Supreme Court ruled that the official count submitted by Florida was in fact their official result, and Bush won the electoral college 271-266 with one faithless elector abstaining.

None of these incidents degraded the legitimacy of the popular vote, nor the electoral college.  Is this because of a better informed populace?  A great election system first implemented in 1804, but still working in spite of World War, economic turmoil and societal upheaval?  Or are we just staying lucky?

The reality is that only swing states are active sites for modern campaigns.

The reality is that only swing states are active sites for modern campaigns.  Here’s how the 2012 election looked in late October.

You’ll see pro and con viewpoints over the next few days, I’m sure.  Here are three key points to remember:

1. The only way the system changes substantially is by constitutional amendment.  That is not an easy thing to do … 3/4 of the states must approve it.  Typically, 2/3 majorities in both the House & Senate are required just to propose it.  That sounds like Washington these days, right?

2. States can change the way they allocate their Electoral votes, but there is currently no groundswell of public opinion for that to happen.  48 states and the District of Columbia all do it the same way: winner take all.

3. It’s worked over 50 times since the 12th amendment passed, through all kinds of societal turmoil.

I believe the bigger issue today is why we continue to have so many varieties of registration, voter identification at the polls and the actual ballots themselves.  I think fixing those issues is much more important than changing the wacky electoral college procedures that we’ve had for over 200 years.

We vote.  The Electors vote.  The President is peacefully inaugurated on January 20.  It has been the American way.

Whatever the alternative systems are that you’re going to read about … there is no proof they will work any better.   So why should we change, exactly?

More

The Electoral College by William C Kimberling, FEC Office of Election Administration, rev. May 1992

Legal requirements to vote as pledged, by state

The Truly Strange Election of 1836

California electoral law summary

Electoral votes by person in 2012

One response to “You Don’t Know How Voting Works

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  1. Pingback: Voting 2016 | MowryJournal.com

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