Back to college

Test your knowledge with these two quick questions: (1) Where is the Electoral College located, and (2) What is its sports mascot?

It’s not surprising that Google searches for “Electoral College” spike every four years, coinciding with presidential elections. Surveys reveal on average a third of Americans are clueless about the subject.

One study a few years back surveyed elected officials at various levels of government. When presented with multiple-choice answers to define the Electoral College, 43 percent of the public servants missed the correct answer as the “constitutionally mandated assembly that elects the president.” One in five of that mistaken bunch chose the answer that it was “established to supervise the first presidential debates.”

In a classic example of rampant fear of the unknown, most people, when asked, favor abolishing the Electoral College. That feat would require a constitutional amendment, and the last time a proposal escaped congressional committee was nearly 50 years ago. But given the often contentious nature of presidential elections, it’s a popular cause.

In fact, reforming or eliminating the Electoral College has been the objective of more than 700 proposed constitutional amendments, more than any other subject.

Regarding my trick questions, there is no physical location, and although the right mascot might help foster a better understanding, the Electoral College fields no sports teams.

Even people who understand the fundamental functionality of the Electoral College may not be familiar with the history that produced it. During the summer of 1787, the framers discussed several methods of selecting the president. Suggestions ranged from congressional selection, to election by state governors, to electors chosen by state legislatures, to a special group of members of Congress.

Unable to resolve it in convention session, the matter was referred to a committee which ultimately arrived, through compromise, at the Electoral College system (though the word “college” wouldn’t appear until decades later).

Each state was allocated electors equal in number to its congressional membership. The minimum electors for any state is three, since that’s the smallest representation possible in Congress. The 23rd Amendment allowed the District of Columbia the same number of electors as the least populous state.

While the Constitution is specific about the quantity and qualifications of electors, it defers to the state legislatures on their actual selection. In Arkansas and most other states, electors are chosen at the state political party conventions.

The original intent for electors seems to be that, once selected, they would cast their ballot independently. In practice, however, it never worked out that way, and today it’s rare to have an elector “go rogue” and vote contrary to the party’s nominee. It’s only happened a handful of times in history, and it’s never been a material factor in an election.

In 48 states, electors are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. In Nebraska and Maine, electors vote on a district basis, which means a split of electors among candidates is possible. That can ruffle feathers in some particularly partisan circles, because it’s the dynamic that will probably make all of us in Arkansas Donald Trump voters next Tuesday.

Technically, each of us will cast our ballot for a slate of electors, who are pledged to vote for their party’s candidate. But when the ballots are counted, if Trump carries the popular vote in Arkansas—as polls strongly suggest he will—he’ll get all six of our state’s electoral votes.

The indirect nature of our presidential election serves a couple of good purposes.

First, from a federalism standpoint it evens out population-weighted biases of larger states. The population of Arkansas is about 0.9 percent of the country, but our electoral count boosts that figure up to about 1.1 percent.

But secondly, and more importantly, the indirect elector system aids in creating both a more resounding mandate for winning candidates and a quicker return to normalcy for the electorate. A contested popular-vote squeaker across all 50 states could stymie resolution for weeks. An electoral “landslide” quiets agitants on both sides.

This American phenomenon was observed and remarked favorably upon 175 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville. It was inconceivable for Europeans to imagine changing a monarch every four years without calamitous results or conquest, he noted.

In America “the election of the president is a cause of agitation, but not of ruin,” he wrote.

“For a long while before the appointed time is at hand, the election becomes … the all-engrossing topic of discussion,” de Tocqueville wrote. “… [A]ll the artificial passions which the imagination can create in the bosom of a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light.”

Sounds familiar. And prophetic.

He goes on about the citizens being “divided into hostile camps” and the election being “the daily theme of the public papers, the subject of private conversation”—the “sole interest of the present.”

But then “as soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled,” he observed. “… [T]he current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level.”

This year, particularly, we all look forward to a “calmer season” returning, as de Tocqueville put it. And you can partly thank the Electoral College for that.


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