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HOLMBERG: What is the Electoral College, and why do we still have it?

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The Electoral College is a weird system, 225 years old - sort of the duckbill platypus of democracy.

Many speak of it, but not all understand it. And hardly any of us could name a single member of the mysterious  college that represents our vote.

It all starts with our founding fathers, of course. They figured your average citizen had a third grade education (at best) and little chance of hearing much about national candidates. News of the day would frequently take weeks to arrive.

So, borrowing from the ancient Romans, they came up with this idea of a college of knowledgeable electors to select  the president and vice president.

Back then, most of the population lived in clusters in Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania, which would’ve meant the president would’ve likely always been a hero or favored son – a Daniel Boone or the equivalent of Honey Boo-Boo - from one of these states.

So we have a system that spreads the voting power a little more evenly.

Each state, no matter how big or small, has two electors for each of their two U.S. Senate seats. Many small or lesser-populated states get a big bump in voting power this way.

Then, they get another elector for each member of their U.S. House of Representatives. 

Virginia has 13 electoral votes. But since each party gets to pick their electors during their conventions, we have a total of 52 electors, 13 each for the Republicans, Democrats,  Constitution and Libertarian Parties.

You can see the names and addresses of  Virginia’s electors for 2012 on this section of the State Board of Elections website:

Obviously, they’re party die-hards and favorites. Any eligible voter can be an elector, as long as they’re not holding a public office.

Whichever party wins the popular vote, their 13 electors get to trot down to the state capital downtown in December and cast their votes.

Obviously, they’re not going to vote for the other guy – but, legally, they could. It’s happened from time to time, mainly to honor local candidates in contests that weren’t close at all.

In Washington DC and every state - except two – it’s winner take all. Maine and Nebraska can split their votes in proportion to popular vote.

Most of the time, the electoral college is a mere formality.

But four times, the popular vote did not determine the winner; 1824 (John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, Henry Clay), 1876 (Rutherford Hayes versus Samuel Tilden), 1888 (Grover Cleveland versus Benjamin Harrison) and, of course, the contested 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

But there have been many more times when the electoral vote percentages weren’t even close to the popular votes, such as in the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. Nixon got 31,783,783 votes to Hubert Humphrey’s 31,271,839 votes. But Nixon got 301 electoral votes and Humphrey just 191.

Which begs the question, in this era of mass and instant communication, when we know every wart and whisker of the candidates, why not disband the college and go with the popular vote?

“We’d now have candidates tailoring their candidacies to just urban and suburban voters, large block voters in the largest states,” said Robert Patterson,  chair of the social studies department of Trinity Episcopal School. “And we would have major interests that are important to our national interests – agricultural, we all want to eat – that would largely be ignored in terms of politics.”

Patterson gives homespun talks about the Electoral College. He often uses a sports analogy: during multigame playoffs, we don’t award the victory to the team that scores the most total points, but to the team that wins the most games.

The Electoral College forces the candidates to focus on winning as many games as possible, not just running up the score here and there.

Yes, this strange college is 225 years old. But my guess it won’t last much longer if the candidate who gets the most popular votes this time doesn’t get picked by the electors.

The masses are not only much more educated now, they’re plenty fired up.