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The Electoral College and Politics

Bill and his guests discuss the Electoral College. Scheduled guests: Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville; Joshua Douglas, law professor at the University of Kentucky; Anne Cizmar, government professor at Eastern Kentucky University; and John Heyrman, political science professor at Berea College.
Season 23 Episode 33 Length 56:33 Premiere: 08/15/16

The Electoral College’s Impact on U.S. Politics

It has no classrooms or campus. It doesn’t offer degrees or diplomas. It doesn’t even have a football or basketball team.

Yet this uniquely American institution has touched the lives of every citizen for more than two centuries.

It’s the Electoral College, and this year, as it does every four years, it will select the person who will be the next President of the United States.

But how the Electoral College exactly works and why we even have it remains a mystery to many voters. To help answer those questions, Kentucky Tonight convened a panel of political and legal scholars to explain the history and mechanics of the Electoral College.

A Last-minute Compromise
The Electoral College was formed during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when delegates from 12 of the 13 states convened in Philadelphia to develop a framework for the new American government. With all that they had to accomplish, establishing presidential elections was not a high priority for the 70 delegates.

“How to choose the president was one of the last things decided at the Constitutional Convention,” says Berea College political science professor John Heyrman. “They were really not sure how to choose presidents for a long time. This was sort of a last-minute, last-ditch compromise.”

At issue was who would actually elect the chief executive. The options the delegates considered included having Congress select the president or having qualified citizens elect their leader. Centre College Assistant Professor of Politics Benjamin Knoll says that the notion of a popular vote was a non-starter among the delegates because they were skeptical that Americans had sufficient wisdom to select their president. Having Congress make the choice was also problematic because of concerns about separation of government powers.

The delegates arrived at a compromise, whereby a panel of electors representing each state would convene to select a new president. The number of electors from a given state would equal the members of Congress from that state. Kentucky, for example, now has six congressmen and two senators, so the commonwealth has eight electors. Originally, most states charged their legislatures with selecting individuals to serve as electors.

Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, says the goal was to have qualified, knowledgeable people engage in lengthy debates about the candidates before making their final selection.

“The founders really wanted us to have a deliberative republic rather than a simple majoritarian, populist sort of democracy,” says Gregg.

From the beginning, though, the constitutional language about electors had its flaws. For example, it called for the candidate who received the majority of electoral votes to become the president, while the runner-up became vice president. That meant candidates from competing parties who might be fierce opponents could occupy the two executive positions.

“I think at the time, no one really thought it was the best method ever invented,” says Anne Cizmar, government professor at Eastern Kentucky University. “But really it was the only method they could find that would be practical.”

Lose the Vote, Win the Election
The electoral system continued to evolve over the years. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution, proposed in 1803 and ratified the next year, clarifies some of the issues with the original language.

Today, party apparatuses in each state select a slate of electors. Gary Gregg says they are generally people who have proven their loyalty and their financial commitment to their party.

The party representing the candidate who wins that particular state on Election Day will empanel their electors to cast their votes for that candidate. So, voters aren’t actually picking a president; in essence, they select the electors who will vote for the presidential candidate who won their state. Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Nebraska and Maine apportion their votes based on which candidate wins each congressional district.

This year, electors in each state and the District of Columbia will meet on Dec. 19 to cast their ballots for president and vice president. Then, on Jan. 6, 2017, a joint session of Congress convenes to tally the electoral votes.

To be declared the winner, a presidential candidate must receive 270 of the available 538 electoral votes. Since the popular vote is tallied separately from the electoral vote, a presidential candidate can be declared the winner even though that candidate lost the popular vote. That scenario has occurred only a few times in American history, most recently in the 2000 election. George W. Bush garnered 271 electoral votes, but Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 ballots.

“Ultimately, the Electoral College is undemocratic,” says Joshua Douglas, law professor at the University of Kentucky. “Someone can not win the majority of the votes and yet become president… [If] we define democracy as majority rule and consent of the governed, then you have the possibility of that not occurring.”

Douglas argues that a switch to a national popular vote for electing presidents would be a better, more equitable system. Since a constitutional amendment to ditch the Electoral College system is unlikely, he says popular vote advocates have introduced legislation in all 50 states that offers a possible alternative.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact says that a state would cast its electoral votes for the candidate who wins the national election, not that particular state’s vote tally. Douglas says that would ensure that the candidate who wins the popular vote would also win the electoral vote and therefore become president.

So far only 11 mostly Democratic-leaning states have approved the compact. Douglas says he believes red states would quickly embrace the idea if a GOP presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the election.

Electoral Nightmares
The notion of a national popular vote isn’t popular with everyone. Gregg says he worries that candidates, especially Democratic ones, would focus all of their attention on the nation’s biggest cities, where they could more efficiently secure a substantial number of votes. He says smaller or more rural swing states that now get attention from candidates seeking electoral votes would become largely irrelevant in a popular vote system. Cizmar says she fears a popular vote system with a crowded presidential field could result in the winning candidate not getting enough votes to claim a mandate to govern.

A politician who wins the presidency but loses the popular vote isn’t the only troubling scenario possible under the electoral structure. Centre College political scientist Benjamin Knoll says that there is no federal law that requires state electors to actually vote for their pledged candidates. So in a closely contested election, a change of heart by one or two electors could alter the outcome of a presidential race.

Since electoral votes are not cast until a month after Election Day, Gregg wonders what would happen if some damning information came out about the winner in the interim. He says it’s conceivable the disclosure could prove so disturbing that electors could decide to select the second-place finisher.

Then there’s the possibility of a double or even a triple tie. If the electoral vote ends in a 269 to 269 draw, the U.S. House Representatives would decide the presidential election while the U.S. Senate would select the vice president. In the House, each state delegation is given one vote to cast, so it’s possible that the chamber could split 25 to 25. In that case, the Senate-selected vice presidential winner would serve as president.

But what if the Senate also deadlocked? The Constitution says each senator gets one vote, so that body could come to an impasse on selecting a vice president. If that were to occur, then the Speaker of the House would serve as acting president.

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Season 23 Episodes

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S23 E43 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/31/16

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S23 E42 Length 56:53 Premiere Date 10/24/16

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S23 E41 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/17/16

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S23 E40 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/10/16

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S23 E38 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/25/16

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S23 E37 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 09/19/16

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S23 E36 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/12/16

U.S. Foreign Policy Issues

S23 E35 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/29/16

Impact of Campaign Finance Laws

S23 E34 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/22/16

The Electoral College and Politics

S23 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/15/16

The Future of Medicaid in Kentucky

S23 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/01/16

Previewing the 2016 Election

S23 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/10/16

Gun Control vs. 2nd Amendment

S23 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/27/16

Debating Immigration Policy

S23 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/20/16

Debate Over Jobs and Wages

S23 E27 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/06/16

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S23 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/23/16

2016 Primary Election Preview

S23 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/16/16

Democratic U.S. Senate Primary

S23 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/09/16

Republican U.S. Senate Primary Candidate

S23 E22 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 05/02/16

Republican 1st District Congressional Candidates

S23 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/25/16

Democratic 1st District Congressional Candidate

S23 E20 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 04/18/16

Democratic 6th District Congressional Candidates

S23 E19 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 04/11/16

Republican 6th District Congressional Candidates

S23 E17 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 03/28/16

Republican 3rd Congressional District Candidates

S23 E16 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 03/21/16

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S23 E15 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/29/16

Negotiations on State Budget

S23 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/22/16

Crafting New Education Policy

S23 E13 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/15/16

Debating the Minimum Wage

S23 E12 Length 56:31 Premiere Date 02/08/16

Assessing the Governor's Budget

S23 E11 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/01/16

Felony Records Expungement

S23 E10 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/25/16

Right to Work and Prevailing Wage

S23 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/18/16

Charter Schools in Kentucky

S23 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/11/16

Major Issues Await Legislature

S23 E7 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/04/16

Solving the State Pension Crisis

S23 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/14/15

Preparing for the 2016 General Assembly

S23 E4 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/23/15

Priorities for the State Budget

S23 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/16/15

Election Analysis

S23 E2 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/09/15

What's at Stake in the 2015 Election?

S23 E1 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/02/15

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Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, is a public affairs discussion program broadcasted live on Monday nights at 8/7c on KET and KET.org/live.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to kytonight@ket.org or use the message form on this page. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

After broadcast, Kentucky Tonight programs are available on KET.org and via podcast (iTunes or Android). Files are normally accessible within 24 hours after the television broadcast.

Kentucky Tonightwas awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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