- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

An often-overlooked procedure for electing a U.S. president is sparking interest after this year’s historic contest.

Barack Obama won the general election Nov. 4, but he still must receive at least 270 votes at meetings next month across the country where members of the Electoral College cast their ballots. And like those readying for the Jan. 20 inauguration, area organizers already are fielding questions from those hoping to witness the largely symbolic ceremonies.

“People are very interested,” said Kathryn Parker of the Virginia State Board of Elections, who is in charge of preparation for Virginia’s Electoral College ceremony at the state Capitol in Richmond. “I think it’s partially because it is the first time a Democrat has been elected in the state of Virginia since 1964 with Lyndon Johnson.”

The 538 members of the Electoral College will cast their ballots across the country Dec. 15, and the votes are expected to be counted at a joint session of Congress in January.

In Virginia - where Mr. Obama defeated Republican competitor Sen. John McCain by earning nearly 53 percent of the vote - the Electoral College ceremony is being moved from the old House chamber in the Capitol to the new House chamber that can accommodate more people.

The old chamber - where Robert E. Lee accepted command of Virginia’s forces in 1861 - holds roughly 100, she said. The newer chamber has room for double that number.

“We do have much more interest this year than we have noticed in the past,” Miss Parker said. “So we moved it, so we could accommodate twice as many people.”

The educational aspect of the event hasn’t been forgotten in Maryland, either.

Laurence Block, a ninth-grade government teacher at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, will be taking a group of students for the ninth time since 1976 to witness the quadrennial ceremony, which this year will be held in the Miller Senate Office Building instead of the State House, which is closed for renovation.

Mr. Obama won nearly 62 percent of Maryland’s vote. Mr. Block said the ceremony, where Maryland will cast its 10 Electoral College votes, gives students an opportunity “to witness government in action.”

“The excitement is over; we know who won,” Mr. Block said. “But the ceremony, I believe, is a very beneficial experience.”

Many students are impressed by the event, which in the past has been a crowded affair attended by lawmakers and media, Mr. Block said.

In the District, Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, said planning for the Electoral College vote is not finalized.

Anita Bonds, chairwoman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, said she has heard rumblings that the city is considering a larger ceremony as well. She said the event is typically brief, and simply involves casting ballots, filling out paperwork and a mayoral attestation that the votes were received.

But Mr. Obama won 92 percent of the city’s vote. And this year might be time for a change, Miss Bonds said.

“We’re a Democratic community, which we tend to be more so than not,” Miss Bonds said. “It’s great to have the White House again.”

The Virginia ceremony is largely mandated by state law and will remain roughly the same as in years past, Miss Parker said.

But at least one thing will be substantially different: The state’s 13 electors will deliver their votes through a roll call instead of using ballots.

The reason for the change is the new House chamber is equipped with broadcasting equipment that will allow the ceremony to be shown in overflow rooms and recorded so video discs showing the event can be distributed to schools.

Miss Parker also said Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, will deliver welcoming remarks that she expects will focus on the history and importance of the Electoral College.

Maryland officials said details for their ceremony this year are still being settled, but that the state elections board and the office of Secretary of State John P. McDonough are getting questions about it.

“We’re starting to get e-mails and calls from people just wanting information on it and wanting to know if they can attend,” said secretary of state spokesman Jason Waskey.

He did not know how the requests compared with those of years past. “It seems like there are a lot of people really interested,” he said.

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