Tom Ross: Framers of the US Constitution gave us bewildering Electoral College

Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

Election 2012

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— News organizations are reporting that the race for the presidency is virtually tied in terms of the popular vote. That’s remarkable, and it says a great deal about our great nation. But you and I know the national popular vote total won’t determine whether it will be Mitt or Barack who occupies the Oval Office for the next four years.

We both know that our democracy is not founded on the precept of one woman, one vote when it comes to choosing a president.

You don’t have to be a wonk to know that the candidates are chasing 270 electoral votes in the winner-take-all Electoral College system. With only a couple of exceptions (Nebraska and Maine), the Electoral College awards all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in each of those states. But you might need to be a bit of a wonk to understand how we got here.

Be forewarned — the rules of the Electoral College are actually more complex than those needed to start a fantasy football league.

The short version is that the framers of the constitution were starting from scratch in 1787 and didn’t have a clue. They did not trust the average citizen to make sound choices. There’s such a thing as too much democracy, you know.

The framers’ first instinct was to allow Congress to decide who the second president of the United State (after George Washington, of course) would be. But they feared a dominant factor in Congress could perpetuate itself under that system. Good call.

So they came up with a paternalistic slate of wise electors, chosen by state legislatures. There would be one for every member of the state’s congressional delegation plus two more for the state senators, to cast votes for president.

Small states didn’t like that idea. They were fearful that larger states would become dominant, according to columnist Eric Black of the nonprofit news site MinnPost.

Stanford University historian Jack Rakove points out that less populous states actually enjoy undue influence in the current winner-take-all-system; states like Wyoming get two electoral votes for their senators in spite of their relatively small population, giving them more electoral votes per capita. Fortunately, pronghorns are not eligible to vote.

In Colorado, we have a strong sense that each of our votes can make a difference in the outcome of the presidential election. Colorado’s nine electoral votes are very much in play and the outcome could go down to the finish line.

But how would you like to be a Reagan Republican in the conservative stronghold of Orange County, California? That state is solidly blue on the presidential level, leaving SoCal elephants to cast a ballot on whether or not to require strict labeling of genetically altered foods.

On the Gulf Coast, Romney has an insurmountable lead in the chase for Alabama’s nine electoral votes by a margin of 61 to 39 percent.

So, the only difference between Colorado and Alabama, aside from the winning percentage of their college football teams, is that Colorado’s votes are up for grabs.

Maine and Nebraska, where the electors may split their votes, could become the wild cards in this year’s electoral vote count. In Maine, for example, the elector for one of its two congressional districts — the one with the most lobstah — could go for Obama. The other elector for the district comprising the woodsier, mooseier part of Maine could go for Romney, which could wind up breaking a tie. Got it? Me neither.

If you wake up Wednesday morning confronted with the unthinkable — an electoral tie of 269 to 269 — and the possibility that the new House of Representatives will pick your next president and the Senate will pick the vice president, you can blame it on our founding forefathers.

And then get on with your own confusing life.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

Election Guide 2012

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