Every four years, we Americans get reminded of what and who we are.
We go back to college. But we never graduate. Forty-eight hours from now we will be watching massive scoreboards on our televisions tracking the status of the Electoral College.
Most Americans can’t tell you what the Electoral College is, how it works, or why we have it.
Very simply, the Electoral College is the way we choose the President of the United States. The big maps on TV are divided between red states and blue states. Where did that come from?
From the very first days of our nation; indeed even before we were a nation; there was and still is a split between the big states and the small states. The difference between big and small states matters because a state is a state, no matter how big or small.
We are also split by geography, topography, weather, wealth and location.
And the states are sovereign entities, not mere departments of a national government. The Founders of our nation created a national legislature which has two Houses: the lower house represents the people, the Senate represents the States. Both have to agree on every law.
That same compromise exists in the Electoral College. Each state has a number of votes equal to its congressional delegation. Add its two Senators to the number of its Congressmen and you get the state’s electoral votes.
So the voting for President is not just a matter of counting the total number of votes for each candidate, nor is it a matter of counting the total number of states won by each candidate.
The TV commentators will talk a lot about ‘swing’ states. That is because the vote in those states is hard to predict. Many states are easy to predict. It is a foregone conclusion that New York and California will vote for the Democratic candidate.
How do we know? Just because they always do. This is a big country. People in different States eat different food, cheer for different teams, speak in different dialects, and vote for different candidates. And this despite the leveling effect of TV, the Internet, and the free movement of our people.
Al Gore won the popular vote, but George Bush won the White House. Two other candidates who got ‘gored’ were Samuel Tilden in 1876 and Grover Cleveland in 1888.
Forty eight of the fifty states, and the District of Columbia, award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Only Maine and Nebraska divide their presidential votes proportionally.
There have been many efforts to change the system. Since the Electoral College is built into our Constitution, it will take a constitutional amendment to change it. Not an easy thing to do.
Some well meaning folks have tried to solve the problem another way. National Popular Vote, Inc. is an organization which has been trying to get states to agree to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote. They would not need every state to agree; only states with enough electoral votes to form a majority of the Electoral College; 269 electoral votes.
The web site nationalpopularvote.com tells us:
“The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the entire U.S. It has been enacted into law in 11 states with 165 electoral votes, and will take effect when enacted by states with 105 more. The bill has passed one chamber in 12 additional states with 96 electoral votes. Most recently, the bill was passed by a bipartisan 40–16 vote in the Republican-controlled Arizona House, 28–18 in Republican-controlled Oklahoma Senate, 57–4 in Republican-controlled New York Senate, and 37–21 in Democratic-controlled Oregon House.”
National Popular Vote, Inc. has been around a dozen years. Their progress is slow, but they are persevering. I believe it was New Jersey Chief Justice Arthur Vanderbilt who observed during his state’s historic 1947 convention, “constitutional reform is no sport for the short winded.”
Indeed, it isn’t. But the quadrennial drama of every leap year gives change a little push. Maybe this time the mountain will move a little more.