The Unfaithful Electors
November 7, 2000 1:21 AM   Subscribe

The Unfaithful Electors can hand the election to the candidate you didn't chose. 318 Electoral Votes are not legaly bound to go to the particular state's popular vote winner. More Electoral College tidbits at the Electoral College Web Zine.
posted by tamim (19 comments total)
My eigth grade social studies teacher told the class that that was just in case the eneducated unwashed masses found themselves enthralled by some crazy nutjob...or maybe in case the whole country voted while drunk... The electors with their more reasoned votes could overturn a clearly irrational decision. Who knows, maybe now's their chance to keep a crazy nutjob drunk out of office!
posted by owen at 4:14 AM on November 7, 2000

what if they gave us all a big 'fuck you, party members' and installed mccain or bradley... THAT would be wacky.

happy election day, everybody.
posted by palegirl at 4:58 AM on November 7, 2000

I'm sorry to sound superior to you 'mericans, but I am so I can't help it.

The elctoral college system has to be one of the stupidest ways of choosing a leader in existence. The fact that it chooses the most powerful man on earth makes it all the more perverse and frightening for us non-americans.

Even feeling superior is not much fun when it looks like Dubyah is going to win.
posted by fullerine at 7:41 AM on November 7, 2000

I'll bite. Which country would that be fullerine?
posted by terrapin at 7:50 AM on November 7, 2000

It would appear from the MeFi info page that fullerine represents the entirety of the sovereign nation of "Derrick." I hope we have a treaty.
posted by Skot at 8:10 AM on November 7, 2000

Did you read the EC webzine's reasoning about the electoral college, fullerine? Part of the justification is that under the Constitution, the federal government has limited power and the states are really where decisions are made. The electoral college essentially is a way for the states to vote for the President. Each state decides how to vote based on the vote of its populace.

Plus, without the electoral college placing addtional weight and importance on states in the interior of the country, the candidates would never even campaign there, focusing on the megalopolises of the coasts. A huge constituency of the American electorate with vastly different interests than those of the urban coasts would be ignored.

I'm not sure how this is really any worse or less fair than a parlimentary system in which the public doesn't even get to vote on the leader.
posted by daveadams at 8:28 AM on November 7, 2000

Well, and political parties weren't something that the Founding Fathers conceived of -- George Washington, for one, thought that they had a detrimental effect on elections. In a two-party system, it's obviously problematic, but if you imagine a situation in which four or five candidates have broad regional support, the Electoral College makes more sense; it's sort of a quasi-parlimentary system in which people vote for "members of parliment" who have no purpose except to choose the head of the executive branch.
posted by snarkout at 8:46 AM on November 7, 2000

The idea of an electoral college is a good one as far as it increases the power of each individual voter.

But letting the electors get away with voting unfaithfully is just NUTS. The process should be constructed so that doesn't happen.

Good idea, dangerous implementation.

Unfaithful electors haven't actually turned the tide of any existing election, but imagine if they did. Would we have a revolution? What would happen? People wouldn't stand for it (especially the person who should have won, and their supporters).
posted by beth at 8:59 AM on November 7, 2000

Folks, you're all missing the point.

When the Constitution was written, both travel and communication were extremely slow. Each state would vote, select its electors, and then all of them would get into a wagon or ship and take up to several weeks to travel to Washington where they would all collect together to select the President.

Oregon, where I grew up, became a state in 1859. There were only two ways to get to Washington DC: overland (across the desert and mountains filled with dangerous natives) or by ship (either around South America, or to Panama, overland, and then by ship the rest of the way). If you had the money and didn't need to haul much with you, by ship was much preferred: safer, faster and far more comfortable.

Oregon participated in the 1860 election, but how long did it take for anyone in Washington DC to find out just how Oregon had voted? Same goes for California which became a state in 1848.

The purpose of the electoral college was to compensate for extremely slow travel and extremely inefficient communications. Mail from Oregon also went by ship; it wasn't any faster. And there wasn't anything else; no telegraph, no telephone, no satellite TV, no internet.

In fact, it was even a problem for the original 13; it took a nontrivial amount of time for electors to travel from Georgia to DC, for instance.

It was a completely reasonable solution for a problem which technology has eliminated. But when communication and travel were slow, it was actually a pretty good solution.

Unfortunately, we're stuck with it because it would take an amendment to change it and no such amendment would ever pass.

The Constitution contains a fair number of totally obsolete provisions. Congress still has the right to issue "letters of marque". In other words, it can commission pirates to predate on the ships flying the flag of some specific country. That was included as a way of permitting Congress to privatize naval warfare, at a time when the US itself had no Navy worthy of the name. (It was fairly common then. Sir Francis Drake attacked and captured Spanish treasure ships operating under a letter of marque issued to him by Queen Elizabeth I.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:59 AM on November 7, 2000

Just another note on slow communications: The only major battle of the war of 1812 which the US won was the Battle of New Orleans. Unfortunately, the battle was fought after the war was over. The US and UK had already signed a peace treaty, but news of it hadn't made it to New Orleans by the time the battle was fought. So Andy Jackson made a name for himself, and later was able to be elected President. One of the strange paths that history has followed.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:07 AM on November 7, 2000

As someone noted in an earlier thread, the states are free to adopt an alternative to the current "all-or-nothing" elector allocation system. The U.S. constitution only specifies how many electors a state has (one for each representative in the House, plus two for the senators), not how to select them. I believe that in the early days, electors were appointed by the government rather than selected by popular vote. At any rate, Maine doesn't use the straight all-or-nothing system; the popular vote within each congressional district chooses one elector for that district, with the remaining two electors chosen by the statewide vote. Note that the electors still have the ability to change their own votes, but if you detest the all-or-nothing system, you can work on changing that at the state level.
posted by harmful at 9:15 AM on November 7, 2000

What harmful, steven, and Daveadams said. It's a feature, not a bug, that the states get to choose the method by which the electors cast their ballot. It's a feature, not a bug, that the winning candidate must have electoral votes from a number of states, rather than just a simple majority. (A simpler example, say Serbia and Montenegro as two parts of Yugoslavia, should show why that's a bad idea.) It's a feature, not a bug, that the process magnifies the value of individual votes. It's a feature, not a bug, that the system magnifies the power of small states.

It looks bad at first, but when you examine it closely, it turns out to have many salutary features. I think preserving it is a good idea. (I came to this point of view long before the present election's circumstances.)
posted by dhartung at 10:34 AM on November 7, 2000

I think we should keep the electoral college, but there needs to be some dramatic redesign of how the procedure actually happens. Mend it don't end it but since the problems of transportation and technology of the past are no longer an issue, we need to upgrade the system to keep with the times.

We can effectively have a straight popular vote now. We have the technology. There do however need to be checks and balances in the system so that we can forever insure we don't get some lunatic in there by mistake.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:06 AM on November 7, 2000

I'd also like to note that at the time the EC was set up, people's perception of the role of state and federal government was very different. States were considered to be mostly sovereign, and the federal government was a place to handle matters of conflicting interest, and to provide a few common services such as defense.

One of the interesting stories on the EC webzine is about the 1888 election:

Cleveland's debacle in 1888 demonstrates how the Electoral College system forces candidates to make their appeals as broad as possible. Whipping up intense support in one region will not win the White House. It also shows the potential danger in any direct election system, for it shows how easy it is to achieve really huge vote margins with appeals directed at specific regions, ignoring the rest of the country.

The divisions between different parts of the country may not be as deep today as they were in the last century, but there are still regions with distinct differences in outlook. (Joel Garreau's The Nine Nations of North America is my favorite book on regionalism.) Still, I agree with Zach that the country has changed, and perhaps the electoral college should change as well, but without gutting the entire system.

I mentioned the Maine system earlier, but I don't know how often (if ever) its electors have been split. If Missouri, where I now live, were to adopt such a system, I'm fairly certain that our electors would be divided. Strong political differences exist between the St. Louis area and the rest of the state, and even between urban St. Louis City and suburban St. Louis County.
posted by harmful at 11:54 AM on November 7, 2000

The idea of an electoral college is a good one as far as it increases the power of each individual voter.

Untrue. The electoral college weights votes. A vote in Wyoming is worth about three times as much as a vote in New York. The electoral college (and the Senate, too) compensates lesser populated states and makes a mockery of one person, one vote. As good an argument for ending it as any. As for the "candidates will stay on the coasts and ignore the middle" argument, I grew up in Oklahoma, which has gone Republican every election since Johnson. No candidate ever went there and the voters for Clinton and now Gore essentially have irrelevant votes. So much for maximizing the power of individual votes.
posted by norm at 12:22 PM on November 7, 2000

The electoral college weights votes. A vote in Wyoming is worth about three times as much as a vote in New York.

It's true that Wyoming voters have more influence on the election than New York voters in the electoral college system. However, in every state, the power of a single vote is greater under the electoral college system than in a straight popular vote. Simply put, the chance that your vote will impact the outcome of a statewide election is much greater than that of your single vote impacting a national election. Since electors generally vote winner-takes-all fashion by state, your vote has more power in an electoral system.

posted by daveadams at 12:43 PM on November 7, 2000

The tradeoff to increasing the power of individual voters, of course, is the possibility that someone not supported by the majority will win. (Consider nine voters in three groups of three; two voters in groups A and B vote Big-Endian, and all three voters in group C vote Little-Endian. The Big-Endians take power and launch a vicious pogrom against the Little-Endians, plunging Lilliputian civilization into... Oh, I'm rambling now. But it's obvious from that example that the winning voters in groups A and B have more power than under a direct-vote system.)
posted by snarkout at 2:36 PM on November 7, 2000

I'm back in work after two hours sleep watching the soap opera that is the American Elections and Florida is still not decided (recount).

I think I should back down a bit on my anti-american stance. After watching the interviews with the american populace last night I was amazed by the intelligence and the subtlety of their views (except for a few rabid right-wingers). Over here we assume that the fat, moronic tourists that waddle round our country are representative of your nation. (as opposed to our football hooligans, who are pretty much exactly what we are like)

Also another thing that us brits forget is the sheer vastness of the country. We can get results in quickly and accurately because we have a few hundred thousand votes in each seat, rather than the millions in the states.

But, it is still a farce when the richest and most powerful nation on earth still does not know who won and may still have the situation where the most popular man is not the president.

Then to add to that the votes are called by the TV networks before the counting has even begun!

To find out that the Electoral colleges don't even have to vote for who the electorate choose is bizarre.
posted by fullerine at 2:08 AM on November 8, 2000

To find out that the Electoral colleges don't even have to vote for who the electorate choose is bizarre.

This sentiment I agree with. I think all the states should require their electors to vote a certain way. Either winner-takes-all or the Maine-style proportional voting by congressional district. But that won't happen until there's a big problem, which, if Bush wins with 271 electoral votes versus Al's 267 (in that case), it would only take three defectors (making the vote 268-270) to cause some major controversy. In other words, I think the election should decide the president, whether it's direct popular vote or through the electoral college, the outcome of the vote should bind electors to vote certain ways. We shall see...
posted by daveadams at 7:37 AM on November 8, 2000

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