Monday, November 3, 2008

Electoral College For Dummies

I am assuming here at the beginning of this post (always a bad idea) that you already know two things:

(1) That when you vote tomorrow you will not be voting for the candidates whose names are on the ballot but for a slate of electors who will represent your state in the electoral college, and

(2) That the number of electoral votes a state is entitled to cast in the electoral college is determined by adding together the number of its U.S. Senators (there are two from every state) and the number of its U.S. Representatives to Congress (one from each congressional district, the total number of which can change every ten years based on the state’s official population as reported in the most recent U.S. Census, which may not bear much resemblance to the state’s actual population).

I have to assume you already know these things because you would never find them out from the article I am about to share with you. So, dear reader, if you are a real glutton for punishment and are wondering how in the heck that electoral college thing works, reproduced below is the complete text of an article at a website called, with its original paragraphing and spacing intact.

All righty, then, class, let’s begin:

Electoral College

The United States Electoral College is the official name of the group of Presidential Electors who are chosen every four years to cast the electoral vote and thereby elect the President and Vice President of the United States. It was established by Article Two, Section One of the United States Constitution, which provides for a quadrennial election of Presidential Electors in each state. The electoral process was modified in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment and again in 1961 with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment.

The Electoral College is administered at the national level by the National Archives and Records Administration via its Office of the Federal Register. The actual meetings of electors in each state are administered by state officials. The Presidential Electors meet in their respective state capitals in December, 41 days following the election, at which time they cast their electoral votes. Thus the “electoral college” never meets as one national body. They ballot for President, then ballot for vice president. Afterward, the Electors sign a document called the Certificate of Vote which sets forth the number of votes cast for these two offices and is signed by all Electors. Multiple copies of the Certificate of Vote are signed, in order to provide multiple originals in case one is lost. One copy is sent to president of the Senate (i.e. the sitting Vice President of the United States); the certificates are placed in two special mahogany boxes where they await a joint session of the new Congress where they are opened and counted. Candidates must receive a majority of the electoral vote to be declared the president-elect or vice-president-elect. If no candidate for President receives an absolute electoral majority 270 votes out of the 538 possible, then the new House of Representatives is required to go into session immediately to vote for President. (This would likely just occur when more than two candidates receive electoral votes, but could theoretically happen in a two-person contest, if each received exactly 269 electoral votes). In this case, the House of Representatives chooses from the three candidates who received the most electoral votes, but could not establish a majority of votes in the College. The House votes en-bloc by state for this purpose (that is, one vote per state, which is determined by the majority decision of the delegation from that state; if a state delegation is evenly split, a deadlock normally results, and that state is considered as abstaining). This vote would be repeated if necessary until one candidate receives the votes of more than half the state delegations -- at least 26 state votes, given the current number, 50, of states in the union. If no candidate for Vice President receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the United States Senate must do the same, with the top two vote getters for that office as candidates. The Senate votes in the normal manner in this case, not by States. It is unclear if the sitting Vice President would be entitled to cast his usual tie-breaking vote if the Senate should be evenly split on the matter. If the House of Representatives has not chosen a winner in time for the inauguration (noon on January 20), then the Constitution of the United States specifies that the new Vice President becomes Acting President until the House selects a President. If the winner of the Vice Presidential election is not known by then either, then under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House of Representatives would become Acting President until the House selects a President or the Senate selects a Vice President. On the one hand, the Twelfth Amendment specifies that the Senate should choose the Vice President, and it does not admit of a time limit on the selection process. On the other hand, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment allows the President to nominate a Vice President if a vacancy should occur. As of 2006, the House of Representatives has elected the President on two occasions, in 1801 and in 1825. The Senate has chosen the Vice President once, in 1837.

[end of article]

There now, isn’t that simple?

Here’s a pretty map to look at until your head stops spinning:

Two things the website neglected to tell us: (1) Nowhere in the process does it say that the slates of electors in each state must vote for the candidate who received the most popular votes in their state on Election Day; each elector can actually do as he or she jolly well pleases. (2) If those two special boxes aren’t mahogany, the whole election is null and void and has to be done over. (Note to the gullible: Only one of the two preceding statements is true.)

Now that you are no longer a rank dummy on the subject, you may have thought of a question or two concerning the electoral college yourself, such as: What was the original process before the Constitution had any amendments? How did the the 12th amendment change the process? How did the 23rd amendment change the process? What about the District of Columbia? Why was there no Presidential Succession Act until 1947? Which two presidents were selected by the House of Representatives in 1801 and 1825? Which vice-president, and whose, was selected by the Senate in 1837? What does quadrennial mean?

As they used to say on Mission Impossible, your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to find out for yourself the answers to these questions.

Here are the original cast members of Mission Impossible. While you’re sitting up late listening to election returns, try to name them all without help. Can you do it?

If your head is starting to spin again, put it between your legs for a couple of minutes, take two aspirin, and call me in the morning. Or you could try gazing at that map again.

[Update. It has now been exactly four weeks since the election and absolutely no one has bothered to try to identify the cast members of Mission Impossible. So, in the interest of spreading knowledge and truth everywhere, I will. In no particular order, they are Peter Graves, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, Martin Landau, and Peter Lupus. There, now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Barbara Bain and Martin Landau were husband and wife, and Peter Graves was the brother of James Arness of Gunsmoke. Also, Warren Beatty is Shirley MacLaine’s brother, and for the really ancient among you, Ricardo Montalban married Loretta Young’s sister, and Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Wilkes to Leslie Howard’s Ashley in Gone With The Wind) was the sister of Joan Fontaine (Jane Eyre to Orson Welles’s Rochester in Jane Eyre), but not a single one of those fascinating tidbits of trivia has anything to do with either Mission Impossible or the workings of the Electoral College. --RWP, 12/2/2008]


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thanks for performing such a valuable civic service. Being a writer of social studies textbooks, I'll pass on answering the question because I have an unfair advantage.

The mahogany box comment was very funny.

Rosezilla said...

Ok, so what you are saying is, California actually decides the election, right? (Just kidding. Very interesting and educational). by the way, I read your stories and enjoyed them very much, esp. "Silver."

Putz said...

i can't even get my stories clear in my reader's head, how do you expect me to get my noggin around the concept of my vote not really counting....i live in a state that doesn't have many electorial votes and this year i am voting opposite the way the state votes....but it is all over anyway...if they counted votes right now...the polesters would be able to tell us who was president

rhymeswithplague said...

Thanks, Ruth (Ruth) and Tracie (Rosezilla), for your comments and for continuing to read my blog in spite of having to wad through a mind-numbing subject from time to time.

Actually, the eleven most populous states*, if they voted the same way, could decide the election all by themselves and tell the other 39 states plus the District of Columbia to go take a flying leap. The surprising thing to me, pretty much an easterner although I was raised in Texas, is how few people live in some of the western states.

I am still in favor of the electoral college, though, rather than going by the popular vote because I believe it would encourage voting fraud. At least, under our electoral college system, voting fraud affects only the result in one state, not the entire nation. I'm not saying that the results in one state cannot effect the entire outcome, only that the effect of fraud, by the nature of the system, is localized.

At least, I hope that is the case.

*California (55), Texas (34), New York (31), Florida (27), Illinois (21), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), New Jersey (15), North Carolina (15), and Georgia (15) = 271 electoral votes

rhymeswithplague said...

Putz (Mr. Barlow, sir), your vote does count. And your story was clear in this reader's head, once you added a few details to the backstory!

Also, if you and your friends had lots and lots of children like the Osmonds did, Utah might get a few more electoral votes! There's still time!

rhymeswithplague said...

wade through

Dr.John said...

I hope everybody will read this very clear explanation. You have done a great public service.

rhymeswithplague said...

I feel like saying, "Aw, shucks, it was nothing," but what I will say instead is, "Thanks, Dr. John -- it was my pleasure!"