Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Why the Electoral College?

Just what is the Electoral College anyway?

Recently, my youngest daughter and I were out shopping, followed by a most enjoyable dinner together at Frankie, Johnnie, and Luigi’s Too in Dublin. Great pizza! But I digress. She’s been working two jobs and chipping away at completing her college education for several years now. As we were spending the evening together we got around to politics, so she asked me about the Electoral College.

Well, I attempted to launch into an erudite explanation that would dazzle her with my multi-degreed brilliance. It readily became apparent that I could not effectively put into words the function and purpose of the Electoral College. I vaguely remember studying this important function of our government, but that was about a hundred years ago! I found myself mumbling helplessly, hoping for some divine enlightenment in my failing attempt to explain this part of our election system.

I decided I needed to bone up on this topic. Thus, you will be the beneficiaries of my research.

First, let’s ask the most important question. Is it the popular vote, or the Electoral College vote that elects the president? Answer: Both. Each state has an Electoral vote for each senator (every state has two senators). Then there’s an Electoral vote for every U.S. Representative (based upon state population census). Each major political party at its convention selects electors to match the number of senators and representatives. Whichever party garners the simple majority of the popular vote wins all of the Electoral votes for that state. (There are two exceptions: Maine and Nebraska). This is why, mathematically, a candidate could conceivably win the Electoral College vote, and lose the popular vote. Largely populated states, such as California and New York, could easily swing the number of popular votes in one candidate’s favor so that when you combine all the popular votes throughout the nation, the winner of the popular vote could lose the election – case in point – George W. Bush in 2000. In truth, the candidate for the Democratic Party, then Vice-President Al Gore, won the popular vote, and lost the election. The Republican candidate, then Governor George W. Bush, won the Electoral vote, and thus the election.

The founding fathers of this great nation understood the problems associated with a straight popular vote. The first danger is what we often experience in high school class elections – popularity. The most popular kids were elected to be president of the class, secretary, etc. A truly charismatic personality could come along and sway the electorate, winning overwhelmingly through popularity. This is even more telling today with the use of television. If a candidate is not photogenic, it will be an uphill battle.

The second danger is centered on shear numbers. The most populated areas of the country would determine who would be elected if it were only a popular vote. Though not a perfect system, the Electoral College does even the playing field somewhat so that smaller populated states (Wyoming, for example) still have their voice heard.

To emphasize the point, notice how much time the candidates are spending in what are called the “swing states.” These states are generally smaller in population, but since each Electoral vote counts, the candidates cannot afford to ignore them. These smaller states don’t have the clout in numbers, but they can be the tie breakers. They are players in the grand drama. This is why every vote actually does count. It’s not just some platitude we hear every four years during our national election. Again, consider the role Florida played in the 2000 election. Florida has 27 electoral votes. California has 55 – slightly more than twice as many. Yet Florida determined the winner. Truth be told, there were fewer votes separating the two candidates in New Mexico – the difference is that New Mexico didn’t have “hanging chads.”

My oldest daughter just phoned me informing me she had gone down to reregister to vote, since she moved about a month ago. She didn’t want to hear her dad get on her for failing to vote.

Remember: it’s a privilege. It’s also your responsibility as an American.

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