A look at the electoral college

    There is one aspect of American elections that’s a subject of an enduring debate – the electoral college. In the 2000 election, the presidential candidate that won the popular vote lost the White House because he came up short in the electoral vote count. WHYY’s Elizabeth Perez Luna has spoken to a detractor and defender of the electoral college and to a real live presidential elector.  

     Lara Brown is  a political science professor at Villanova University  andshe has written extensively about the electoral college.  She is not surprised that the electoral college still causes confusion and contoversy.  “Generally  speaking most Americans can’t stand the electoral college because  they don’t really understand how it works”, said Brown. She stressed that even though the 2000 election brought the electoral college debate back into the public spotlight, average voters as well as political people, often miss an important point about the Electoral College.  Brown explained what she meant in a recent interview.

    “They don’t understand that it’s really about representing them as not just a US citizen but as a state resident.  It’s about making sure that the President cares not just about the populous places but the actual whole country that exists.  Most of our presidents, because of the electoral college have actually have represented not just the majority of people but also the majority of states.  And that is a really important issue”. Political commentator Dick Polman understands very well but  he believes it’s time to change this awkward system, this “Idiotic Electoral College” as he called it recently in his  Newsworks.org blog.   

    “I think the electoral college is something that potentially invents crises that we would otherwise avoid if we simply did what virtually every other western democracy does which is to count the votes and whoever gets the most votes wins.  How much simpler can it be than that? Instead the system which the founding fathers devised as a rather complicated compromise to make the small states feel better is like a Rube Goldberg contraption.  And anybody who knows Rube Goldberg’s cartoons can see that it’s an unnecessarily complicated set of apparatus that yields a result that we really could get to much simpler with just a popular vote.” American voters tend to agree with this populist approach, says  Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. In past polls, the dominant response was not in favor of the electoral college deciding the winner of the presidential election.  “If Americans had their druthers”, said Newport “there would just be a popular vote.” This debate is almost as old as American politics and  it was re-ignited during the 2000 election when Al Gore lost to George Bush on the basis of his electoral votes. There’s a National Popular Vote Movement organized to push for a state by state change  as a possible alternative to a Constitutional Amendment.   Still, explains Prof Brown, there  a fundamental problem in  understanding the importance of the electoral college.

    “The biggest thing is that most American’s don’t realize that we don’t have a democracy.  We have a representative republic and what that means is that every elective office represents a different constituency so we do not have one man equals one vote in every institution”.  So  where does the popular vote fit in all this ? Does it really matter? Again, Villanova University’s Lara Brown.

    “Your vote does matter and it matters at the state level.  And that is what is difficult for most people to grasp is that we have a system that attempts to balance national power with federal power.  So a national voice, which you as an American citizen are a part of and which you vote for members of the House of Representatives to be that voice; and then we have a federal voice which is why you vote for the US Senate and you vote for president.  And what that means is that at every moment of your life you are an American and a Pennsylvanian. ”  Dick Polman agrees that the individual’s vote is important. “On balance it’s still a citizen’s duty to try to affect the outcome of an election.  The alternative is to basically stay at home and then complain for the next four years about people in office who you had no role at all in electing.” Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes. Depending on the results of the popular vote, one group of electors selected by each party will go to Harrisburg in December to vote. Philadelphia’s councilwoman and elector, Democrat Cindy Bass is hoping to make that trip.”I’m very excited to have the opportunity to formalize my support and to follow the wishes of the people.”

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