Fresh Ideas: Ambiguous business of electing electors

The Electoral College gets intense criticism when it chooses a president who lost the popular vote. I’ve always wondered how this happens, so I looked into the process.

This cumbersome mechanism originated with the framers of the Constitution, at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. These were mostly wealthy, aristocratic men, who feared citizens directly electing the president would result in mob rule. The college would provide a buffer, and the states would elect the president. States would have one electoral delegate for each of its voting members of Congress. Delegates would be chosen as determined by the state’s legislature.

The Founding Fathers visualized non-partisan, high-minded delegates who would know men worthy of the presidency. Electors would deliberate and astutely choose a suitable gentleman for president, ensuring popular mandate would not foist a man devoid of culture or ethics on the country.

Today, electors don’t deliberate as a nationwide unit. Furthermore, they’re chosen for party loyalty and patronage, not independence, wisdom, or excellence. Electors are expected to vote for the party candidate, but no federal law, nor many states, require they do so.

Some 1787 Convention attendees advocated adding slaves — as 3/5 of a person — to population counts. Rural states feared domination by states with large cities. Also, with a relatively sparse national population scattered over vast distances and no nationwide media or communication, candidates couldn’t easily be popularized. George Washington, a nationally known, respected Revolutionary War hero, was an obvious choice for the first president; such a person wouldn’t easily be found again.

At first, all electors met as a group. Each voted for any two people, one or both from a state different than himself. From the top five votes, House Representatives elected the president, each state having one vote; the runner-up became vice president. Political parties changed this practice after John Adams’ victory in 1796 left him saddled with his political opponent, Thomas Jefferson, as vice president.

In Nevada, our vote for president actually elects a slate of elector-candidates chosen by the political parties. Electors meet at their state Capitol in December after the general election to cast their votes. Most states are “winner take all.” All electoral votes go to whomever wins the popular election, no matter what the split. Only Maine and Nebraska allot electoral votes, proportional to the popular vote in congressional districts. Results are tallied in January at a joint session of Congress. The House of Representatives decides tied votes or elections without a majority in the Electoral College. Usually, the popular vote winner has been elected, but in five elections, 1825, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016, the loser was the winner.

So how does the Electoral College overrule the popular vote? Several ways, it turns out.

In the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush, the popular vote was almost a 50-50 tie, and Florida’s officials cried voter fraud and faulty equipment. The Supreme Court gave the popular vote to Bush, and with the winner-take-all system Bush took all of Florida’s 27 electoral votes.

In 2016, seven “faithless” electors helped swell the tide of controversy. One Hawaiian elector and five from Washington state deserted Clinton; two electors from Texas abandoned Trump. But the real culprit was support from those states with fewer than 15 electors. Trump took 24 of these for 170 electoral votes while Clinton won 13 states for 110 votes. Three states with 15-plus electors supported Clinton with 96 votes, and six went for Trump with 101 votes.

Super delegates and bonus delegates are a complex, mysterious and powerful influence in the Electoral College, and warrant my further investigation.

Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.


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