Thursday, December 15, 2016

How Does it Work?

Alexander Hamilton
On December 19, 2016, the electoral college will assemble in their respective states to cast their votes for President of the United States.  I am interrupting my series on reading and books with this blog in order to be relevant to the current news.  The promised blog about encouraging reading in our children will continue next week.  

Most Americans have a vague notion of the electoral college but don't understand why it was created nor exactly how it works. Since historically the popular vote has aligned with the vote of the electoral college most of the time, many voters tend to think that their ballots decide who our President will be.  Only four times in our history has the popular vote and the electoral college vote differed, but two of those times have happened in recent years--when George W. Bush was chosen over Al Gore, and the current likelihood that Donald Trump will be chosen over Hillary Clinton.

I was curious to better understand why the Founders created our system of elections, and the best answer can be found in Essay #68 of the Federalist Papers.  Considered by many to be the third most important document in American history, after the Declaration of Independence  and The Constitution, The Federalist is not widely read by most Americans.  Yet, it is perhaps the best source for what the Founding Fathers were trying to achieve.

The collected essays were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, `and John Jay to gain support for ratification of the Constitution.  Essay #68 was written by Hamilton in an effort to explain why the popular vote was not the best means for selecting our President, but rather having citizens select wiser men "...capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements that were proper to govern their choice.  A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

That, in a nutshell, explains the objective of our two-tiered election process.  Most of the time Americans pay little attention to that process; however, when the popular vote exceeds the designated electors from each state, calls are made for reforming the system, or pleas are sent to the individual electors to support the popular vote.

In Isaac B. Werner's old home state of Kansas, a Republican political stronghold, the current election garnered 57%  for the Republican slate of electors.  Each state has the number of electors that represents the combined total of US Representatives and US Senators which, in the case of Kansas, is 6 of the total 538 electors.  Under Kansas law, the electors are not bound to vote for the candidate of the party for which they were chosen.  Some other states, however, impose penalties if their electors deviate from the party's slate of electors for whom they were elected.

The Hutchinson News reported that Kansas electors are receiving e-mails, phone calls, and other communications pleading with electors either to abstain from voting for Donald Trump or to vote for another Presidential candidate or even another Republican that was not on the ticket. The Kansas Republican Party Executive Director is one of the electors, and his opinion is that "The party selects as its slate of electors only people who are 100% reliable to vote for the winner of the state's popular vote."  Another elector, out-going State Representative Mark Kahrs indicated that he would vote for Trump, "Absolutely, unequivocally, without question." 

Popular vote, Political Parties, or Constitution
Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold pointed out that the current movement urging electors to abstain or vote for Republicans not on the ballot, like 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, or cast their vote for the winner of the popular vote, seems a wasted effort to him, since Republicans have the majority in the US House of Representatives where the decision would go if no single  Presidential candidate received a majority of the electoral votes.  Of course, if the candidate with the popular majority were to receive a majority of electoral votes, that being Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, it would not need to go to the House.

In Essay #68, Hamilton writes:  "This process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.  Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honours of a single state; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole union, or of so considerable a portion of it, as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States." 

It is rare, even in states where electors are free to make an independent judgment about the qualifications and character of the candidates when they cast their vote as an elector, that electors would choose to vote for someone other than the person their slate of electors was chosen to support; however, it has been done and in this election some electors have indicated a willingness to do so.  For many electors, they feel a duty to support the slate upon which they were elected, without regard to popular vote or their personal view of the fitness of the candidate.  However, that position ignores the purpose stated by Alexander Hamilton in Essay #68 of The Federalist in which the role of the electors is described as a responsibility to independently analyze the fitness of the person for the highest office our nation can bestow.  That responsibility is not merely symbolic, and the duty of electors is likely to be argued each time a Presidential election is close or the popular vote exceeds the electoral college vote.


Deb L said...

I so wish Hamilton were alive today to weigh in on is thoughts in Essay #68! Thanks, Lyn, for another great blog post.

Deb L said...

Thanks, Lyn, for another great Blog post! I wish A. Hamilton was alive today to reflect on his premise in Essay #68.

Deb Ludwig

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

A reader has shared this interesting link. Go to to read about the organized efforts to encourage electors to fully consider their role beyond simply voting for the party candidate.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

The full cite referenced above is and the article title is "Electors' Lawyer: Founding Fathers Anticipated Trump.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Among the comments sent to me are the following: LNM in Arizona wrote: "Very well explained. Thank you." DL in Kansas wrote: "I dearly wish Hamilton was alive today to reflect." LNM, a lawyer in Texas, considered whether those states imposing penalties on electors for exercising their own judgment and deviating from the majority might be violating the Constitution, given the clear intention of the Founding Fathers, according to The Federalist #68, to provide a final consideration by the electors to independently determine whether the presumptive presidential-elect was fit for the office.