Does Your Vote Count?

On the eve of Election Day, the long presidential campaign appears to be finally coming to a conclusion. But not so fast, according to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Remember the Electoral College. NARA has a web site that gives the history of the Electoral College system and the electoral process. Interestingly, the term “electoral college” does not appear in the Constitution although Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

In explaining how the term “electoral college” came into usage, the NARA web site explains:

The founders appropriated the concept of electors from the Holy Roman Empire (962 – 1806). An elector was one of a number of princes of the various German states within the Holy Roman Empire who had a right to participate in the election of the German king (who generally was crowned as emperor). The term “college” (from the Latin collegium), refers to a body of persons that act as a unit, as in the college of cardinals who advise the Pope and vote in papal elections. In the early 1800’s, the term “electoral college” came into general usage as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President and Vice President. It was first written into Federal law in 1845, and today the term appears in 3 U.S.C. section 4, in the section heading and in the text as “college of electors.”

Key dates in the electoral process are:

November 4, 2008 – General Election: The voters in each State choose electors to serve in the Electoral College. As soon as election results are final, the States prepare seven or nine original “Certificates of Ascertainment” of the electors chosen, and send one original along with two certified copies (or three originals, if nine were prepared) to the Archivist of the United States.
December 15, 2008 – Meeting of Electors: The electors in each State meet to select the President and Vice President of the United States. The electors record their votes on six “Certificates of Vote,” which are paired with the six remaining original “Certificates of Ascertainment.” The electors sign, seal and certify the packages of electoral votes and immediately send them to the President of the Senate, the Archivist of the United States and other designated Federal and State officials.
December 24, 2008 – Deadline for Receipt of Electoral Votes: The President of the Senate, the Archivist of the United States, and other designated Federal and State officials must have the electoral votes in hand.
January 6, 2009 – Counting Electoral Votes in Congress: The Congress meets in joint session to count the electoral votes (unless Congress passes a law to change the date).

NARA has published The 2008 Presidential Election/Provisions of the Constitution and United States Code, a pamphlet that explains its role in the Presidential election process the process where NARA’s Office of the Federal Register (OFR) acts as the administrator of the Electoral College on behalf of the states. The pamphlet lists the key provisions of the US Constitution and Title 3 of the US Code that govern the process. Election Day is not the end of the election but is just the first step in a much more detailed procedure whose outcome is not officially known until January 6, 2009 with the counting of the electoral votes in Congress.

We all remember the 2000 election when Al Gore received 537,179 more popular votes than George Bush on that Election Day. After the Electoral College met, they awarded the electors from the state of Florida to Bush and he won the presidency. There were three other instances in which the Presidential candidate with the most popular votes did not win the presidency. They were:

  • 1824 John Quincy Adams received fewer votes than Andrew Jackson. Adams was awarded the Presidency after the House voted on it.
  • 1876 Rutherford Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden. Hayes received 5 of the 6 smallest states electoral college votes along with Colorado to win.
  • 1888 Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland, but he won the electoral college by 65.

So this raises the question: why have an Electoral College? This past month, on October 23, BLS had such a presentation by BLSPI and the ACLU called Does Your Vote Count? A Debate About the Electoral College. Speaking in favor of the electoral college were Diane Mirabile and Raphael Ruttenburg; Paul Carlson and Rob Kornblum spoke in support of the Popular Vote.

Library resources on the topic include:

Taming the Electoral College by Robert W. Bennett (Call # KF4911 .B46 2006)

Why the Electoral College is Bad for America by George C. Edwards, III (Call # JK529 .E38 2004)

Choosing a President: the Electoral College and Beyond edited by Paul D. Schumaker, Burdett A. Loomis (Call # JK528 .C44 2002)

Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College edited by Gary L. Gregg II with an introduction by Mitch McConnell (Call # JK1976 .S43 2001)

The Case against Direct Election of the President: a Defense of the Electoral College by Judith Best (Call # KF5051 .B43) (1975)