It’s official

Sen. Obama has been nominated by acclamation for president, on Sen. Clinton’s motion:

It was quite moving to have Clinton and Obama—and their supporters—symbolically brought together in the moment. I’ve been to a few dozen conventions over the years, including two DNCs, but this is the most satisfying bit of convention drama in my memory.

Shoulda run for national delegate again. Good thing we have the series of tubes.

And no, this post isn’t off-topic. <politics>After all, this formalizes my pledge as an Obama elector candidate! ¡Sí, se puede!</politics>

New Constitution page added

Just added: A new page featuring the passages from the Constitution mentioning presidential electors. (Interestingly, the term “Electoral College” never appears in the Constitution, although it has been established in statute.)

Specifically, this includes the texts of:

Article II, Section 1 (1789)

  • The concept of electors was introduced.
  • The original voting process was laid out. Each elector was to cast two votes; The top vote getter became president, and the second became vice president. (This was changed with the Twelfth Amendment.)
  • Established the House contingency whereby if no one received votes from a majority of electors, the president would be elected by the House, one vote per state. The vice presidency did not require a majority, but there was a Senate contingency in the case of a tie for #2.
  • Set the requirement that the electors vote in their own states on a day chosen by Congress.

Twelfth Amendment (1804)

  • Changed the rules such that the electors would now cast separate votes for president and vice president.
  • A majority vote for vice president was now required to avoid triggering the Senate contingency.

Fourteenth Amendment (1868)

  • Overrode the provision under which slaves counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional and Electoral College apportionment, yet had 0/5 right to vote. Also theoretically reduced apportionment for states that blocked ex-slaves from voting.
  • If I’m not mistaken, contained the first constitutional reference to popular election of presidential electors: “But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States…”
  • Banned officials who had participated in insurrection, rebellion, or treason (in the Civil War context) from holding federal office, including that of elector.

Twenty-Third Amendment (1961)

  • Granted electoral votes to the District of Columbia.

Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964)

  • Banned poll taxes in elections for federal offices including presidential elector.

The full text of these passages can be found on the aforementioned new Constitution page.

Did somebody say VP?

The run up to today’s Obama-Biden textnouncement has spurred some discussion about the vice presidency. History blogger SerGee3 at Don’t Give Up the Ship suggests the vice president be elected separately:

Since the Vice President can become acting or actual President, We the People deserve more of a vote on him or her than a joint party ticket. While solutions range from the simple to the complex, and while partisan politics can throw wrenches in the process, the American experiment has grown to the point where the VP is the only office not in some way directly chosen by the people, and that has to change, if for no other reason than historical momentum.

Great food for thought. The full article doesn’t get into ways to implement this, as the president and VP are currently elected by the same pledged partisan electors.

It would presumably require a constitutional amendment to:

  • abolish the Electoral College in favor of separate popular votes for president and vice president; or
  • use separate electors for the vice president; or
  • leave one of the positions in the hands of the Electoral College and elect the other one directly.

Meanwhile, Stephen, a.k.a. Sisyphus, takes some of the same arguments to a different conclusion: Abolition of the vice presidency. Check it out.

The Electoral College… Why?

What were they thinking when they created the Electoral College?

In the excellent Taming the Electoral College, Robert W. Bennett comments on the difficulty of ascertaining the “purpose” or “intention” behind any decision made by multiple people in the give-and-take of, say, a Constitutional Convention (Bennett 2006, 106). From a certain point of view, it’s simple: We needed a chief executive and a way to select that officer; the founders were all over the map between direct popular election and Congressional selection; a committee was formed to come up with something; and the Electoral College was what came out of the grinder.

Like some modern-day politicians, the Electoral College may have survived not by being everybody’s favorite idea, but by being a minimally acceptable second choice for most. That said, let’s review some of the commonly suggested reasons for the establishment of the Electoral College.

Creating a buffer between the people and the election of the chief executive. The founders were concerned about “mob rule” and demagoguery (Gregg 2007, 22). Some feared that a directly elected chief executive could run roughshod over the other branches of government by claiming a special mandate as the only official chosen by the entire country. In that context, indirect election through the Electoral College can be seen as a check on presidential supremacy.

Now, the original buffer was far buffier than most people realize. The Constitution didn’t even require electors to be directly chosen by the people—and it still doesn’t. The state legislatures have full power over how they assign electors. A legislature could constitutionally choose to pick the electors itself; let the governor appoint them; randomly call up electors as if for jury duty; or even hand out elector slots like Flaming Lips tickets to a radio show’s first 10 callers.

In the first election in 1789, the majority of states used legislative selection, not the popular vote, to choose electors. Although most states had moved to statewide popular votes by the 1830s, the South Carolina legislature handpicked electors as late as 1860 (Gregg 2007, 31).

Of course, the popular election of pledged electors is now long established in the laws of every state. But legislative selection is still constitutional and was floated as a Republican workaround during the 2000 Florida vote-counting debacle. That idea was mooted by the Supreme Court’s intercession.

Avoiding the logistical nightmare of a national mass election. This may have been a valid concern in 1787, but in the modern era we’ve long had elections from coast to coast on a common Election Day, and have most results within a day or so.

Still, one serious concern under this category is the use in some states of electronic voting systems with no paper trail. If we’re going to federalize our elections we need federal standards, starting with a ban on unauditable paperless voting.

Meanwhile, some say the Electoral College has the positive effect of compartmentalizing such issues to individual states, while others argue that the “winner-take-all” system only magnifies the effects of election fraud. I suspect it depends on the particular math of a given election. Any mathematicians want to weigh in on this?

Creating a forum for learned deliberation over the choice of president. Um, yeah, this one didn’t last long. Alexander Hamilton had propagated this idea in Federalist 68:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.

Seeing as the electors are constitutionally bound to meet on the same day but in their separate states, there’s simply no opportunity for live deliberation to occur in the Electoral College as a whole body. Election requires an absolute majority of electoral votes, not just a plurality in a multi-candidate race; Thus, once George Washington left the scene and rival factions first started jockeying for the presidency, the electors had to have some sort of prior communication to winnow the candidates to the point where that majority was even possible. And since everyone was still on dial-up, that was really slow.

So a shortcut to that electoral majority was bound to develop. In the first post-Washington election in 1796, a new species evolved: the pledged elector, who is chosen based on the promise to vote for a particular ticket.

The pledged elector, now the universal norm, is chosen explicitly to not deliberate. On the contrary, she is expected to have made her choice in advance and to defy any attempts at persuasion or other inducement.

Thus, the deliberative role for the elector is long gone. I’d argue that this has dramatically democratized the system. Your vote now counts toward your candidate’s victory, if only in our abstracted American way.

Cementing the role of the states in our federalist structure. The United States of America is by definition an association of interdependent states. The Electoral College structure is said to honor that paradigm by ensuring that candidates will campaign by state rather than to an amorphous national mass of Americans.

The general-ticket system, or “winner-take-all,” also bolsters the importance of states as units.

Protecting the interests of small states. In the Electoral College, each state has representation equal to its total representation in the House and Senate. So every state, no matter how sparsely populated, gets at least 3 electoral votes. This gives the small states more proportional weight in choosing the president than larger states, theoretically protecting them from being steamrolled in the process.

This was part of the package of compromises—also including the separation of powers, the distinct structures of the Senate and House, and other features of the Constitution—that are intended to balance large states and small states; democracy and representation; each state’s interests and the United States’ interests.

Of course, another major factor in the drive to embed the system with structural protections for states (or, more precisely, for the ruling classes in certain states) was the “institution” of slavery. I can’t do justice to that topic here, but will write a much more substantial piece on that in the future.

I hope this helps to illuminate some of the reasons for the Electoral College system. I welcome your comments.


Bennett, Robert W. 2006. Taming the Electoral College. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.

Gregg, Gary L. II (ed.). 2007. Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books.

Electoral College 101

The Electoral College is a body of 538 Americans elected by the voters on a state-by-state basis to cast the official ballots for president and vice president. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, “The Electoral College was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote.”

It must be acknowledged right off the bat that, as far as public opinion goes, the Electoral College isn’t exactly one of the Founding Fathers’ Greatest Hits. We’ll explore pros and cons in future posts. For now, let’s talk basics.

We can use my state of Minnesota as an example. On November 4, 2008, Jane Q. Voter of Duluth goes to the school on the corner to vote for president and vice president. She casts her ballot—let’s say for Barack Obama. She has registered her choice. From her point of view, the process seems to be over.

But under the U.S. Constitution, there’s more to the story. Rather than having directly voted for Obama, she has actually voted for a slate of 10 electors pledged to Obama. Each party in Minnesota proposes a separate 10-person slate—we Democrats have our 10 (of which I’m one), the Republicans name their 10, and other parties and independent candidates each have elector slates as well. The voters on November 4, including our Jane, decide which of these slates will be seated as the actual electors. These electors, in turn, meet at the Minnesota Capitol on December 15 to formally cast the state’s ballots (electoral votes) for president and vice president.

In most states, the candidate who wins the most popular votes gets all the electors from that state, even if other candidate(s) had considerable support. This “winner-take-all” practice is why TV electoral maps always show entire states as “red” (Republican) or “blue” (Democratic), even though every “red” state has a substantial number of Democrats and vice versa. It’s also why presidential campaign strategy is based not on blanketing a national multitude of voters, but rather on appealing to voters by state in order to nail a 270-electoral-vote majority.

The number of electoral votes allocated to a state is equal to that state’s total representation in the U.S. House (which varies from state to state based on population) and the Senate (always 2 per state). The range goes from mammoth California (55 electoral votes), to medium-sized states like Wisconsin (10) and Kentucky (8), to bite-sized Wyoming (3).

While we tend to think of electoral votes in the abstract, each elector is in fact an actual person. Generally, they’re typical citizens like you and me—unless you’re a Congressperson or some other species of federal officeholder, in which case you can’t be an elector so I probably shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Awk-ward…!

What is distinctive about most electors is that they’re highly active in politics, and are chosen largely because of their service and loyalty to their respective parties. That may sound like inside baseball, but that party-loyalty element virtually ensures that when voters in, say, Utah vote Republican, the electors won’t turn around and vote for the Democrat.

(I say virtually because there have been rare cases when electors didn’t vote the way they had pledged. They’re called faithless electors, and we most certainly will be discussing them.)

We’ve talked about the what. Next time, we’ll talk about why we do it this way. Stay tuned.

[Edited 8/17/08 to clarify that each party nominates a separate slate of 10 electors.]

Hello, world

“Who am I? Why am I here?”
—Admiral James Stockdale

My name is Dave Lee. I’m a longtime Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor activist and Young Dems alum—another way of saying I’m a grown-up Democrat with vestiges of youthiness. I live in Minneapolis and work in IT support for a company I’m sure you’ve heard of.

This blog is about the Electoral College. I was recently nominated for elector by the 5th Congressional District DFL. This means that if we Democrats do our work and win Minnesota in November, I’ll have the deep honor of casting one of those 10 “blue” votes for Barack Obama (and another for his VP).

This is often seen as a strictly ceremonial duty. But when I was seeking the position, I had a better idea: to use this rare opportunity to shed light on this obscure feature of American government. Hence, this blog.

Some of the angles we’ll explore include:

  • How to become an elector
  • Interesting history and trivia
  • Things that make you go “Uh-oh!”—the “faithless elector,” the “wrong winner,” the House contingency, and more
  • Reform and abolition schemes
  • The December 15 voting process
  • The theory behind it all

Whoever you are—Democrat, Republican, or something else; activist, couch potato, or even past elector—I need your feedback and ideas!

So, what is the deal with the Electoral College?

Stay tuned.