Unmasking the Electoral College

Most Americans are aware of the role of the Electoral College, a system established under the Constitution that relies on representatives to select the president. But what most Americans may not understand is exactly how the system works, or who these electors are.

L. Kinvin Wroth, former dean of Vermont Law School, said the founders of the country had two intents when they created the electoral system that makes voters choose electors, who cast ballots for president.

“One was to give weight to the interest of states as partners in the new federal system created,” Wroth said. “The second purpose was really reflecting the thought that for the grand election of president … the people were not to be wholly trusted.”

Wroth said the original idea of the system was that people would select the electors at a ratio proportionate to their states’ congressional delegations; the electors would be able to exercise independent judgment in their presidential votes.

Today, the party of the presidential candidate who wins a majority of a state’s votes selects the electors.

“The second (reason for the Electoral College) disappeared right away with the quick development of the party system and partisan politics that commands pressure on electors and the Electoral College system to cast their votes for the candidate of the party under whose banner was on the ballot,” Wroth said.

Nadine Winter, who served on the D.C. City Council from 1978-1990, said the position typically goes to the party faithful.

She was selected by the chairman of the local Democratic Party to be an elector for D.C. during Al Gore’s run in 2000.

“I was a delegate to the convention and coordinator for the Gore campaign, and here in the District of course, the vote went to Mr. Gore,” she said.

Barbara Lett-Simmons was another of D.C.’s three electors who was selected to represent Gore in the Electoral College in 2000.

She said the Democrats put her in the post because of her seniority within the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the local branch of the party.

“(The position) is given to people because they have deep pockets and give a lot to the party, or it’s people who have a long history of loyalty to the party,” she said.

The Constitution does not require electors to vote as they promise, so some electors have periodically voted for someone other than their party’s candidate.

Lett-Simmons gained national attention in 2000 when she took the bold move of forfeiting her vote for Gore, who wound up losing the electoral vote 271-266 to George W. Bush.

Her no-vote served to protest the lack of D.C. voting representation in Congress. District residents have one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and no senators (See “D.C. no closer to getting reps.,” p. 5)

Electors go to a physical location to cast their ballots and participate in a brief ceremony.

The actual ballot casting process may seem a bit anti-climatic because by the time electors meet, they have known the results of the election for weeks. In essence, their actual vote is just a formality.

“There’s a little bit of a ceremony – about a five-minute ceremony,” Winter said. “They say what the purpose of being there is. They make a little speech, and you cast your ballot, and each one of us has to say we cast our ballot.”

Winter said electors view their selections to the Electoral College as recognition for their efforts to help their candidates’ campaigns.

“I think it’s one of the greatest honors (the party) could have bestowed upon me,” Winter said. “I did work hard for Gore, but there were so many other people who were just as qualified as I was.”

Despite her appreciation for her selection, Winter said the electoral system is antiquated and should be eliminated.

“I think they ought to abolish it tomorrow,” Winter said. “I think it ought to be one man, one vote. I have not been convinced it serves its purpose. It may have been good in the 1800s, but I feel it’s not appropriate at this time.”

Lett-Simmons agreed with Winter that the Electoral College should be axed in favor of a popular vote system that would have given the presidency to Gore in 2000.

She predicted that if the 2004 election has a similar outcome to the one four years earlier, the Electoral College will be eliminated.

“I think it’s going to happen,” Lett-Simmons said. “If this election is the fiasco and diabolical embarrassment to our nation that the 2000 election was, I can’t see the Electoral College obituary being far off.”

The current system awards all of a state’s electoral votes to whomever wins the popular vote, even if only by a slim margin.

On Election Day, Colorado residents will vote on a proposal that would change the system to one that awards electoral votes proportionally to the popular vote. Maine and Nebraska already have such a system in place.

Republicans oppose the Colorado plan because they expect to win the state and could potentially lose electoral votes, Wroth, the former law school dean, said.

Because of the politics involved in a move as drastic as eliminating the Electoral College, Wroth said it may be difficult to change it anytime soon.

He said, “I guess where you come out … is whether you think the president is just president of the people, or is he the president of the states and the people, the same way the House and Senate are representative of the states and the people.”

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