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On The Electoral College: Why, How, And What A Revolt Would Mean

J. Scott Applewhite
AP File Photo
Clerks unseal the certificates of electoral results from all 50 states in January 2013, at the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

The result of the presidential election caught many by surprise – especially pollsters, political scientists and journalists. Republican Donald Trump’s victory in key states earned him enough electoral votes to become the nation’s next president. But Democrat Hillary Clinton secured the popular vote.

And that led many of you to write to us at knkx, with questions about the Electoral College and how it works.

We put some of those questions to Robin Jacobson, associate professor of politics and government at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

Why do we have the Electoral College?

Jacobson says it was a compromise made during the Constitutional Convention to balance the competing interests of strong states and a strong federal government.

“I don’t think there’s any indication [the Electoral College] was a clear, targeted strategy as the best way to elect our executive,” she said.

And while there might be some truth to the belief that the founders didn’t entirely trust the populace to pick the next president, Jacobson says there were also signs they wanted to include the people.

“There were other mechanisms that were considered, including just allowing state legislatures to do it … and those were dismissed, for a number of reasons,” she said. “There wasn’t a voice for the people in that. They also didn’t want to have any sitting body that already existed be the site for the election, or the selection of the executive.”

Jacobson says the founders were worried about corruption, and influence from abroad – if domestic or foreign special interests knew who would pick the president, they could attempt to influence the outcome.

How are electors chosen?

Each state gets electors based on the number of people representing it in Congress – members of the House and Senate. Washington has 10 congressional districts, and all states have two U.S. senators. So Washington has 12 electors.

The selection process varies from state to state, and usually happens during the primary season. Let’s look specifically at Washington state, whose 12 Democratic electors will vote in Olympia on Dec. 19, because Hillary Clinton won the state.

The state Democratic Party elected 10 of its electors through congressional district caucuses, with one elector representing each district. Two more were elected at the state convention to be at-large electors.

Do we still need an Electoral College?

The Electoral College sometimes attracts the ire of those unhappy with the election result. That was the case in 2000. Donald Trump himself decried the process on Twitter when President Obama won reelection in 2012, before tweeting earlier this week that the Electoral College is “genius, in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play.” And it’s in the spotlight again after this election, with Clinton’s win of the popular vote.

So: Is the Electoral College outdated? Does it still work for us?

“It depends on what ‘working’ means, and how we envision democracy,” Jacobson said.

If we believe strictly in one person, one vote, then the process could stand some reform, she said. It generates a larger voice for smaller states. But it also prevents some parts of the country from feeling left out of national politics perpetually.

“When I was in Pennsylvania in 2004, in a swing county, in a swing state, we had a city of 4,000 people and we had a presidential candidate coming through twice a week, or a vice presidential candidate, speaking just to us,” she said. “It certainly represents a disproportionate set of attention, but it also meant that certain interests weren’t left out.”

What would an Electoral College revolt look like?

Some discussion after the election has focused on the possibility electors might change their mind and go for Clinton instead. In the past there have been so-called “faithless” electors, whose vote runs counter to the decision of the state’s people. But they’ve never changed an election outcome. And if they were to change their votes en masse?

“That sounds like the end of the system,” Jacobson said. “We’ve just never seen anything like it and that’s not really how the Electoral College is set up. … Upturning and overturning the electoral vote, that seems a fundamental challenge to our constitutional democracy.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.