Electoral College a compromise that has persisted


Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Every four years, Mike Padden relives 1976.

Now a Spokane judge, back then Padden was a young Republican who rocked the Electoral College. As one of Washington state’s electors, Padden voted for Ronald Reagan instead of the candidate who won Washington, Gerald Ford.

When he’s inevitably asked during presidential election season to hash over his rebellious vote, Padden laughs and says he has no regrets.

“I was four years ahead of my time,” he quips.

His example as one of the few “faithless electors” in the nation’s history demonstrates the quirks of America’s system for electing a president – not, as many assume, by popular vote, but through a group of little-known representatives who make up the Electoral College.

The founding fathers created the Electoral College as a compromise between those who wanted Congress to elect presidents and those who thought the people should elect their leaders directly. The electors, chosen by their parties, vote for president on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. This year, that’s Dec. 18.

“I’m really excited about it,” said Dorothy Zimmerman of Mukilteo, a Republican elector. “Just to be an elector is like a part of the national history.

“I have my fingers crossed and am working hard to get George W. Bush elected,” Zimmerman added. “That’s the only way I’ll be an elector, of course.”

Washington has 11 electors, one for each member of its congressional delegation. Depending on who wins Washington on Tuesday, either the Republicans or the Democrats will send their 11 electors to Olympia on Dec. 18. Three of the 11 Republican electors are from Snohomish County: Zimmerman, Lindsey Echelbarger of Edmonds and Evelyn Spencer of Everett.

Zimmerman and her fellow Republicans, or their Democratic counterparts, will be greeted by Gov. Gary Locke when they convene at the ornate Reception Room of the state Capitol. Secretary of State Ralph Munro will serve as a sort of emcee for the proceedings. The electors get blank ballots, upon which they write their choices for president and vice president. The whole thing takes about an hour, said Secretary of State spokesman David Brine.

As Padden discovered, there’s nothing to stop electors from voting for whomever they like.

“There are no blood oaths or anything,” said Democratic State Party Chairman Paul Berendt.

But it’s very rare for electors to cast a dissenting vote. In 1977, after Padden’s stunt, the state Legislature passed a law allowing electors who vote for someone other than their party’s nominee to be fined $1,000. It hasn’t happened since in Washington, so the law’s questionable constitutionality has never been tested.

Carol Sue Perkins of Pasco, a Democratic elector, doesn’t anticipate rocking the boat, but she sees why some circumstances might force an elector to vote for someone other than the party’s nominee.

“Maybe if something were all of a sudden to come out, like your candidate was an escaped felon or something outrageous like that,” she mused. “Or what if something happened at the last minute and he was killed? Then you’ve got to do something. It’s kind of an in-built security.”

The total number of electors is 538, so it takes 270 electoral votes to win. If there’s a 269-269 tie – which is one of the wild scenarios that political scientists say is theoretically possible this year – the U.S. House selects the president.

Three times in U.S. history, a candidate lost the popular vote but became president anyway. It happened most recently in 1888, when Democrat Grover Cleveland got 90,596 votes more than Republican Benjamin Harrison, but lost the electoral vote, 233 to 168.

That’s because as long as a presidential candidate gets more votes than anyone else in a state – it doesn’t have to be a majority – he or she gets all the state’s electoral votes. Even if candidates increase the size of their majority, they don’t get any more electoral votes.

For example, Bush is winning by large margins in certain areas of the country, but that essentially wastes votes, said Mark A. Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.

“In the places (Bush) is winning, he’s winning big, and winning big doesn’t do you any more good than winning small,” Smith said. “It boosts his national percentage but doesn’t gain him any more electoral votes.” If Democrat Al Gore wins enough close states, even by a narrow majority, he could get more electoral votes than Bush.

Smith said that’s certainly a possibility, but not something he’s predicting.

Two other very close elections this century still came out right, Smith said. Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976 by 1 percent and also won more electoral votes, and John F. Kennedy barely beat Richard Nixon in 1960 but still won the Electoral College.

The Electoral College doesn’t count everyone’s vote equally. Every state has a minimum of three electors. So Wyoming, the least populous state, has three electors while California, the most populous state, has 54. California has 69 times the population of Wyoming, but only 18 times the number of electors. (California has six times the population of Washington, and five times the number of electors.)

Washington, like most other states, apportions its electors on a winner-take-all basis. Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that do it differently, apportioning the electoral votes in part based on results within the different congressional districts.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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