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Leonardo Angiulo: The Electoral College Explained

Monday, November 05, 2012


Leonardo Angiulo, GoLocalWorcester Legal Expert

I have a distinct memory of Junior High School and Student Council Election season. I remember promises like 15 extra minutes for lunch and free nachos with cheese after school every day. I remember the fierce look in the candidates' eyes. And sure, maybe I am making some of this up. But I think we all have memories of elections gone by.  

Coming into Election Day 2012 is an opportunity to reflect on what it is we, collectively, do as a nation every four years when we, individually, strike our mark on a ballot.  At some point, we all learned how presidents get elected, and it was probably in Junior High. Now, eighth grade was a long time ago and Mr. Pacheco would be disappointed to know that I can't recall any specific details about the Electoral College despite his best efforts to test me on that subject. So, I did a little online search engine research and found the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration more than willing to school me on this matter.

As they point out here, the Electoral College is a process, not a place.  In fact, the process for electing presidents is sketched out within Art. II, sec. 1 of the Federal Constitution, but is further developed by other sections and statutes. Long story short, we as individuals cast votes. That popular vote is tallied and, in most states, including Massachusetts, the presidential candidate who has the highest number receives all the electoral votes from that state. In order to win the presidency, a candidate must secure 270 of the 538 outstanding electoral votes in the country.

While the process is easily explained, and somewhat understandable, it leads to some interesting results.  Take, for example, the election of 2000 pitting the tickets of Bush/Cheney against Gore/Lieberman for president.  This was 12 years ago, meaning that those voting for the first time this year were 6 years old at the time. What they might not know or remember is that, in this election, Gore/Lieberman took the popular vote with a total of 50,996,582 and Bush/Cheney trailed with 50,456,062. These numbers, however, resulted in a Bush/Cheney victory when they received 271 Electoral Votes to Gore/Lieberman's 266.  

Now, any discussion of the 2000 election would be thinner than the paper ballots in Massachusetts if we didn't bring up the Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000) available here. There are many opinions as to exactly what the court did in this case. Some say they made a political decision to grant the Bush/Cheney a victory.  Some say they applied the law in an impartial manner. Interestingly these opinions are divided along political lines.  

The most objective way, in my opinion, to describe this decision is to say that the Supreme Court prevented the recount of the popular vote in Florida as requested by Gore/Lieberman.  When they did that, they effectively froze the election results for the benefit of Bush/Cheney.  This one opinion overturned certain declarations by the Florida Supreme Court in their ruling, which was as follows: First, that there was no question there were legal votes that had been uncounted in the machine tabulation and second, that the close margin of one half of a percent deciding victory required a manual recount because it was such a close race.    

The moral of this story is that when you think your individual vote doesn't matter, you're wrong. You're wrong for two reasons: a) because you never know when a couple extra votes will make a difference and b) because we don't just vote for presidents. We also vote for questions of law that can change the shape of our communities. We vote for Senators, Congress members and state legislators. And if you ever start to doubt the importance of the individual ballot, give Al Gore a call. I hear he has a strong opinion about it.  


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