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Friday, March 24, 2017

It's all about the Electoral College

Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2008, at 1:50 PM

John McCain has now wrapped it up, meaning all of his efforts can now be focused on November, months ahead of when the Democrats are going to be able to shift their focus. It also makes the entire GOP infrastructure, including the Republican National Committee and its $25 million war chest available to him.

Not bad for a guy whose campaign was on life support three months ago. By the end of June I bet he'll be leading both Obama or Clinton in the polls.

On the Democratic side, things have just gotten muddier all around after last Tuesday. Clinton started getting a lot nastier in her attacks on Obama (who didn't respond quickly enough), and by "shelving" Bill she gained a lot of momentum back.

Meanwhile, the fight will begin for Michigan and Florida's delegates. Remember, the Democratic National Committee stripped those states of their delegates because they refused to abide by the rules that even they had helped create. Both Obama and Clinton had agreed not to run in those states, But Hillary made several forays into Florida just before its primary and was the only candidate on the ballot in Michigan. Together, they represent 366 delegates (210 for Florida and 156 for Michigan), most committed to Clinton, which could be a very big deal if they find a way to get seated at the Democratic nominating convention (and frankly, it could be political suicide for the Democrats to stop them from having some sort of voice).

Obama still leads in the pledged delegates, those selected by the voters in either primaries or caucuses, and despite losing the popular vote in Texas, actually walked away with more delegates under that state's complicated formula for choosing delegates.

And he's gaining ground in the "super delegates," those party officials who are not chosen by the voters and therefore not required to be pledged to any candidate. Barring a miracle, neither Obama nor Clinton will win the nomination outright, the way McCain did for the GOP, putting the convention in the hands of the 795 super delegates (almost 20 percent of the delegates at the Democratic convention).

If the Republicans didn't use a winner-take all system, but instead used a proportional allocation system like the Democrats, McCain wouldn't have the nomination sewed up. He'd be leading, but the GOP would be in the same boat right now that the Democrats are, with at least a two- or three-man race and probably no clear winner going into its national nominating convention.

On the other hand, if the Democrats used a winner-take-all system like the GOP, Clinton would be very close to the nomination at this point.

For the Democratic super delegates, the choices are going to be hard. The end result, after all, is to win in November. Those delegates are going to look at several factors in making their final decision.

Some will look at the national polls, which show Obama having a much better chance of beating McCain in the popular vote in November than Clinton. Hillary has high "negatives" among many voters. For Mc

Cain, almost all of the Huckabee and Romney supporters will either fall into line behind him or not vote at all. But there's a surprising number of Democrats who, if Obama isn't their party's choice, have indicated they'll vote for McCain. That switch is even higher, and significant, among the crucial independents who probably will be the voting block that swings the November election one way or the other.

But the funny thing is, the popular vote actually means nothing in November. Five times in U.S. history, the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the presidency.

The reason is that at no time in U.S. history has the general voting public ever actually cast a ballot directly for president. It's the electoral college that elects presidents. In fact, on ballots in Idaho, you technically cast a vote for the elector pledged to vote for your candidate, rather than the candidate himself.

And if the super delegates look at the states where Clinton has won, as opposed to the states where Obama has won, and relate those to electoral college votes, Clinton comes out well ahead.

For those of you who've forgotten your high school government classes, each state has a number of votes in the electoral college equal to their representation in Congress (their two senators and their congressmen). Today, that means 270 electoral votes are required to win the election (535 congressmen and senators from the states -- territories and commonwealths don't count -- plus three delegates from the district of Columbia, equal the total electoral votes available and you have to have a majority to win the election outright).

If a candidate in November were to win the 11 states with the most electoral votes, they could ignore the other 39 states (and D.C.) and still win the election.

The top 11 states, with their electoral votes, are: California (55); Texas (34); New York (31); Florida (27); Illinois (21); Pennsylvania (21); Ohio (20); Michigan (17); Georgia (15); New Jersey (15); and North Carolina (15). That adds up to 271 electoral votes.

You can see why the Democrats can't really afford to anger the voters in Florida and Michigan, and why some means for seating those delegates at the national convention would seem likely.

So far, as of last Tuesday, 40 states and the District of Columbia had held either primaries or caucuses for the Democrats.

Obama has won 24 states plus the District of Columbia. Clinton has won only 16 states.

But if you look at the electoral college votes represented by the states each of those candidates has won, Clinton has won five of the 11 top states, seven if you include Florida and Michigan, while Obama has won only two of those top 11, and two have yet to hold their caucus or primaries.

In fact, if you add up the electoral college votes represented by the states each candidate has won so far in their party nominating elections, Clinton holds a commanding 263-193 electoral college vote margin over Obama (that assumes Maine and Nebraska give all their votes to Obama, who "won" those states, but I'll get into that quirk in the elections in a minute). If she were to win in November all the states that she's won in the primaries so far, she'd be only seven electoral votes short of winning the presidency.

Now, in truth, come November, some of those states will go for McCain, and some will go for the Democratic nominee, but those numbers are going to be important to the Democratic convention super delegates. Because come November, it's the electoral votes that count, and Clinton clearly is stronger in the big electoral vote states than Obama. His 12-state win streak was impressive, but not where it counted.

* * *

The electoral college is a wonderful anachronism left over from the early days of the Constitution, when the founding fathers, fearful of populism, created a system of government designed to dampen the emotions of the mob and give states a major role. With the 10th Amendment having virtually passed into history, the electoral college (it's not actually called that in the Constitution), is one of the last vestiges left of state's rights.

The Constitution (Article II, Section 1), does not call for a "winner take all" system. The apportionment of delegates to the electoral college is left up to the states. Beginning in the early 19th century and continuing through the mid-20th century, states began setting, as part of their state law, the "winner take all" criteria. Today, 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia (which was given electoral college representation with adoption of the 23rd Amendment) use the winner take all system. Only Nebraska and Maine, which use a complicated allocation system based on winning in congressional districts, allocate electoral college delegates proportionately.

Despite state laws, the U.S. Constitution does not require that electoral college "electors" cast their ballots for whomever the state votes for. And it's happened more than once that an elector broke ranks and voted for someone else. In fact, it happened several times prior to 1836 (when state laws weren't so firm), rarely between then and 1955, but numerous times since the 1956 election (when almost all states were "winner take all").

For example, in 1976, an elector from Washington, a state that voted for Gerald Ford for president, cast his ballot for Ronald Reagan, who wasn't on the ballot that year.

And in 1988, a West Virginia elector voted for Lloyd Bentsen for president and Micheal Dukakis for vice president. Dukakis had been the Democratic presidential nominee against George H. Bush in that election and Bentsen had been his VP running mate (it wasn't a mistake, the elector did it deliberately).

In 2004, a Minnesota elector voted for John Edwards for both president and vice president, giving him 1 electoral vote for president and 252 electoral votes for vice president (Edwards was John Kerry's VP running mate).

* * *

Of the 17 Amendments to the Constitution that have been approved after the Bill of Rights, ten of them have involved directly or indirectly the presidential election process, either through the enfranchisement of citizens (the 14th and 19th for example), or the conditions or terms of office for the presidency and/or its succession.

Under the original Constitution, there was no separate ballot for vice president.

Before the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804, when an elector cast his ballot he listed his top two choices for president. The choices weren't ranked as "first choice" or "second choice" and no mention of vice president was made on the ballot. One list was then drawn up that included both names from every elector's ballot. The person with the majority of votes from the total number of electors (not the majority of the total number of electoral votes) was named president. The person with the next highest number of votes was named vice president.

This early selection of vice president from the president's main opponent probably went a long way toward creating the tradition of giving the vice president nothing to do in the White House.

Although in the first two elections George Washington functionally did not have any real opposition ("first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen"), by no means did he win all the electoral votes cast.

In 1788, Washington received 69 electoral votes to John Quincy Adams' 34. Ten other candidates received a total of 35 electoral votes (44 electoral votes were not cast).

In 1792, Washington received 132 electoral votes to Adams' 77, with three other candidates receiving 55 votes (George Clinton, 50; Thomas Jefferson, 4; Aaron Burr, 1, and four votes not cast).

But in both of those elections Washington was named on every elector's ballot (as either first or second choice).

In the 1796 election, the first to be truly contested, Federalist John Quincy Adams beat Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson by a slim three-vote margin (with 11 other candidates receiving votes, including two for George Washington who had opted not to run for a third term and wasn't on any ballot).

* * *

The founding fathers did not actually foresee the rise of political parties, believing the election of president should be about the man, rather than a party.

That process worked well while Washington was running, but quickly devolved into factional party squabbles after that. In some ways, the "will of the people" quickly became secondary to the "will of those in power" (in fact, popular vote totals weren't even officially kept until 1824 and in many states early on the legislatures determined the electoral college delegates).

After Washington's presidency, multiple political parties were common in the early 19th century (rather than the essentially two we have today). Five, six or seven parties might have candidates winning electoral votes.

That could cause some problems -- and it did in 1824, which requires a quick review of the process.

Under the Constitution, the electors who cast votes in the electoral college must meet at a place designated by their states (usually the state capital) on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (which is Dec. 15, this year). There they cast their ballots for president, which are then forwarded to the vice president of the United States (by law they must be received this year by Dec. 24), and formally opened and counted by the House of Representatives at 1 p.m. on Jan. 6.

If no candidate for president has received a majority of electoral votes the House then votes to select the president, from the three candidates who received the most electoral votes, with each state getting one vote.

In 1824 Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but got less then 50 percent of the electoral votes. He originally received 99 electoral votes to John Quincy Adams' 84 (with William Harris Crawford receiving 41 and Henry Clay 37). When the House voted, 13 state delegations voted for Adams, seven voted for Jackson and three voted for Crawford. Adams thus became the only president selected by the House of Representatives.

The senate, however, selects the vice president from the top two candidates if neither candidate wins a majority in the electoral college. That happened once, in the presidential election of 1836, when Martin Van Buren's running mate, Richard M. Johnson, fell one vote short of a majority in the electoral college. Vice-presidential candidates Francis Granger and Johnson had a "run-off" in the Senate under the terms of the 12th Amendment, where Johnson was elected, 33 votes to 17 (each senator gets one vote).

There also have been a number of cases where electoral college votes were disputed.

In the election of 1872, by resolution of the House, the only three votes cast for Horace Greeley, who was one of five candidates receiving electoral votes in the landslide election of Ulysses S. Grant, were not counted, and in 1876, the electoral votes of four states were disputed. Congress referred the matter to an Electoral Commission, which gave the decision to Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel J. Tilden, 185-184.

And of course, in 2000, the determination of who "won" the Florida vote and would receive its crucial and election-deciding 27 electoral votes, was determined by the United States Supreme Court, with George W. Bush winning in the electoral college over Al Gore 271-266 (that election was one of the five where the man who won the presidency had not won a majority of the overall popular vote).

* * *

(For specific details on the actual selection process, refer to" Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, and Title 3 of the U.S. Code, Section 15, which covers most of the bases at the national level; and each state's Secretary of State's office for delegate selection at the state level.)

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Thank you a reminder of the facts. Just being so cumbersome is reason enough for our country to get rid of the electoral college.

I had a wild thought about having a nationwide primary in, say, July, to weed out some candidates, and the real election in November.

There's got to be problems with this that I can't think of right now, but someone somewhere has got to come up with a better way than the electoral college as it is now.

And a way to reduce the cost of getting elected.

-- Posted by senior lady on Tue, Mar 11, 2008, at 11:00 PM

Amen, amen, and amen.

-- Posted by senior lady on Thu, Mar 13, 2008, at 8:28 PM

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Brian S. Orban
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