Thanks to George W. Bush’s 271-266 victory over Al Gore in the Electoral College in 2000 despite losing the popular vote, more people understand the significance and unique role the Electoral College plays in electing our president. These days, political pundits are all over TV and the Internet with their latest Electoral College predictions, maps and models. Yes, the American people understand the Electoral College is a “big deal,” but few understand how it works and the historical reasons our Founding Fathers established it.
The Electoral College came about as a compromise solution during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and is specifically provided for in the U.S. Constitution. The Framers understood the unique role of the states in coming together to form our government and of the need to maintain the proper balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government. The Electoral College also ensures that no single region of the country dominates presidential elections, but rather promotes support throughout the country. Otherwise, major presidential candidates would just camp out in a few major population areas rather than campaigning throughout the country. Former Federal Election Commission official William C. Kimberling refers to this as “contributing to the cohesiveness” of the country.
Here’s how the Electoral College works: There are 538 electors — one for each U.S. senator and U.S. representative, plus three for the District of Columbia, with 270 votes required for election. The state legislatures have the responsibility of determining how electors are chosen. In most states, electors are chosen by each political party’s state executive committee or at a state convention. The presidential election that takes place in November is really an election to choose a slate of electors supposedly bound to a particular party’s nominees for president and vice president. On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December, the electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast a vote for president and a separate ballot for vice president. The votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate, who opens them and reads the results to the full Congress on Jan. 6, two weeks before the president is sworn in on Jan. 20.
Now, how about all the “what ifs?” If no candidate receives a majority of at least 270 electoral votes, then under our Constitution, the House of Representatives decides. However, the Senate would decide the vice presidency. This has happened twice in our nation’s history. Interestingly, one current computer model has President Obama and Mitt Romney each receiving 269 votes. If both Houses stay the same, you could have a President Romney and a Vice President Joseph R. Biden. The late-night shows would have a blast. I’ll never forget the legendary Strom Thurmond telling me how a difference of 26,000 votes in four or five states in 1948 would have thrown the presidential race into the House. The late senator then smiled and said, “And the Northern Republicans would have gone with me in the House to stop Truman!”
My favorite “what if” concerns the faithless or renegade elector who decides to vote for someone other than the candidate to whom he supposedly was bound. More than half the states have laws punishing such electors after the fact, but you can’t stop them from doing it. In fact, since 1948, nine electors have wandered off the reservation, including a Ford elector who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and a Minnesota elector who voted for John Edwards for president instead of John F. Kerry in 2004. As an elector in 1988, I can remember receiving mail from characters telling me I had the freedom to do as I pleased and others reminding me of my solemn duty, as well as a stern reminder from our secretary of state that I had to vote the people’s wishes as he gave us each our ballot.
Every four years, there are those who argue that it’s time to abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct popular vote. Where are the civics lessons in our high schools? As I look at the Electoral College, I’m reminded of the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, who understood the unique role of all of the states coming together to form our federal government. Today, we have a government that is out of control, too powerful and intruding more and more on the rights of the states and the individual. We see it every day, whether it’s Obamacare or the U.S. government suing Arizona. The Founding Fathers provided in Article IV of our Constitution, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican Form of Government. ” It’s an old history lesson the folks running the federal government today would do well to learn themselves.
Van Hipp, chairman of American Defense International Inc., is a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and a past member of the Presidential Electoral College.