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A look at how the US electoral college works

November 6, 2012

Who elects the president of the United States? It’s not “We the People,” well at least not technically.

There’s that pesky thing called the electoral college, enshrined in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers, and tweaked in the 12th and 23rd amendments.

I once met with international students at Mississippi State University to brief them on the electoral college. What I wanted to say was, “Heck, I’ve followed American politics all my life, and I’m still not sure how it works.”

The electoral college is made up of a slate of electors from each state. Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators (always two — I got that part) plus the number of its U.S. representatives (currently four in Mississippi). So Mississippi has six votes out of 538 in the Electoral College.

Where does the 538 come from? Congress has 100 Senators and 435 Members of the House of Representatives.  That accounts for 535 electoral votes from all 50 states.  Where are the other three electoral votes?  As a result of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1961, the District of Columbia is entitled to three electoral votes in presidential elections.

In December, the electors meet in their respective state capitals to cast their votes, which are sealed and sent to D.C., where the president of the Senate opens them on Jan. 6.

The winning candidate is the one who gets a majority of electoral votes, which is one over half or 270. That’s why both campaigns focus on battleground states like Ohio and mostly skip states whose outcomes are predictable, like Mississippi.

The most controversial part of the electoral college is its winner-take-all characteristic. Whichever party slate wins the most popular votes in the state becomes the state’s electors. The two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where two electors are chosen statewide by popular vote and the remainder by popular vote within each congressional district.

Usually, the winner of the popular vote wins the electoral college. However, four men took office after failing to win a majority of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000. None were incumbents seeking second terms.

Every four years there is some discussion about abolishing the electoral college. It’s described as a relic of the past not suited for modern elections. Why not simply let the winner of the popular vote be president?

First, our Founders believed we were not simply a random assembly of citizens, but that we were members of political entities called states. We call this federalism and still value it today.

Second, what about a recount? In 2000, Florida had to recount votes to see who won its electoral votes. Remember how messy that was? Now imagine a scenario where a close race, without an electoral college, necessitated a nationwide recount. That sounds like a national nightmare to me.

So be sure to vote for president today. Oops, I mean vote for the slate of electors for your candidate’s party to represent you in Jackson and then get transmitted to D.C.

Let’s hope that is only a perfunctory chore this year.

William “Brother” Rogers lives in Starkville and works with the Stennis Center for Public Service. Contact him at brother@stennis.gov.

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