By: S.L. Frisbie, IV for Polk News-Sun
S.L. Frisbie IV Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame Member, 4th-Generation Polk County Newspaper Publisher
Electoral college: the how and why
In most presidential elections, the electoral college is a little like a hot afternoon in August.
You may or may not like it, but it’s there, it’s expected, there’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s so predictable that it barely merits discussion.
But every few years, the Electoral College becomes an anomaly, and just as an August afternoon can bring a gully washer that forces a change in any plans for the day, the Electoral College can have an unusual result in election of a president.
This year, as was the case four years ago, the electoral college has moved from an historical footnote to headline grabber.
A couple of weeks ago, Professor Ed Smith from Polk State College gave a program sponsored by the Polk History Center, which was broadcast to a “virtual” audience by a technology called “Zoom” that is growing in popularity on an almost daily basis.
He teaches government courses, including a section on the Electoral College. At the start of the semester, he said, students think it is an archaic institution which serves no worthwhile purpose. By the end of the course, they often have changed their minds.
America’s Articles of Confederation — the nation’s first attempt at a Constitution — did not even provide for an executive branch, and laws enacted by Congress had no binding power over the states, which could choose to obey or ignore them.
A Constitutional Convention was called, which created a strong executive branch while keeping most of the federal government’s power in Congress, and it created a system of checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
It still left the bulk of decision-making to the states.
It also created an Electoral College whose members choose the President.
This body had a membership equal in number to the two senators from each state plus one elector for each member of the House of Representatives, which then was based on one for each 30,000 population. In 1913, the number of members of the House was capped at 435, where it remains today.
Members of the legislatures appoint the electors, usually from among major political activists within their states.
Florida has 27 members of the Electoral College, up from 25 in 2010.
In the early years, each elector would write down his top five choices for president. The top vote getter became President, and the runner-up became Vice President. They did not have to be members of the same party.
George Washington won by unanimous vote both times he ran. In future years, there was less unanimity, and the House of Representatives broke any ties. The system was amended to provide that both the President and the VP had to be members of the same party.
Today, in all but two states the winning candidate gets all of the state’s electoral votes, no matter how close the popular vote. Only Maine and Nebraska apportion their electoral votes in line with the popular vote in each state.
In America’s presidential elections, five of the winning candidates (in a total of 53 elections) won the electoral vote — and hence the presidency — while losing the popular vote. The most recent was Donald Trump.
The Electoral College ensures that even the less populous states have a meaningful voice in the selection of a president.
If the popular vote were all that counted, just one large state which voted almost entirely for one candidate — the speaker cited California as an example — would have a disproportionate impact on the outcome if votes in the other 49 states were more evenly distributed.
It’s a tricky concept to try to sum up in one sentence, and I do not claim to have done it well. But when Ed Smith explains it to his government classes, his students generally buy into it.
It would take an amendment to the Constitution to mandate a change.
Another proposal could require states, by adoption of a “National Popular Vote Compact,” to require all members of the Electoral College to cast their votes for the winner of the national popular vote.
It is a popular concept in the Democratic Party, much less so in the Republican Party, Smith said.
Any questions? Find a government professor. That’s the best I can do.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He first heard the justification for the Electoral College explained by U.S. Senator Spessard Holland of Bartow in the late 1950s. Florida was then one of the smaller states, and Senator Holland was a strong believer in the Electoral College as a way to give Florida voters a meaningful voice in the process.)