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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Electoral College Redux

Four years ago leading up to the 2004 presidential election I wrote an article about the historical use of the Electoral College. After watching the current presidential debates with its strident hyperbole, I felt it necessary to proclaim once again the importance of the Electoral College.

This is a very important subject for all Americans to understand. The Electoral College is brilliant in its foresight. The founding fathers were indeed prescient in forming the foundations of this great country. We would be well served in frequently reviewing the documents that continue to uphold our nation’s principles and ideals, not the least of which is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Here, then, is a review of the basis of the Electoral College, and why it is still in use today, and needs to continue to be in place in the future.
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 popularity – something we often experience in high school student body elections. The most popular kids were elected to be president, secretary, etc. At times it was laughable because you could see that the elections in high school had little to do with competency, and everything to do with name recognition and popularity. A truly charismatic personality could come along and sway the vote. This is particularly true with state electorates, 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 sheer numbers. The most populated areas of the country would determine who would be elected if it were a straight popular vote. Though not a perfect system, the Electoral College does level the playing field somewhat so that smaller populated states (Wyoming, for example) still have their voice heard. To make the point, the overwhelming numbers of people who live in major metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and so forth, would easily affect the outcome if we used a popular vote system only.

To further emphasize the point, notice how much time the candidates typically spend in what are called the “swing states.” These states are by definition, smaller in population, but since each Electoral vote counts, the candidates cannot afford to ignore them. In the final days of a presidential election you will find the candidates running to these swing states making one final shameless appeal for votes. Admittedly, these smaller states don’t have the clout in numbers, but they can be the tie breakers. They are players in this 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.

I still am in awe that our founding fathers understood the importance of this, especially when you realize how very small our country was in the late 1700s. The principle applied then even as it does now: Every vote counts!

Make sure you register to vote. If you’ve moved since the last election, you need to register again. This would make our founding fathers smile!

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