Members of Washington’s Electoral College and other officials stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before casting their votes in the Senate Chamber at the state Capitol in Olympia on Monday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Members of Washington’s Electoral College and other officials stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before casting their votes in the Senate Chamber at the state Capitol in Olympia on Monday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

They made the Electoral College real to hundreds of students

Cascade High School teachers wanted students to see first-hand America’s system of choosing the president.

EVERETT — As the day wore on and the nation watched, major media outlets updated their digital headlines Monday as if the Electoral College count was some kind of horse race.

Many were tabulating results state by state.

By 1:21 p.m., CNN had the 2020 presidential Electoral College contest at 240 votes for Joe Biden and 229 for President Donald Trump. An hour later, the contest was called in Biden’s favor.

The sheer volume and breathless urgency of news stories about the Electoral College was a far cry from what two teachers from Cascade High School have grown accustomed to over many years of helping their students understand America’s unique way of electing its president.

Mike Wilson continues to teach history and government at the Everett campus, these days alone and by remote connection from his classroom. Friend and former colleague Mike Therrell is retired. Among other things, they would require students to volunteer for political campaigns. Some would choose a Republican; others a Democrat. And still others would volunteer for candidates from both sides in a single race.

During presidential election years, they would take students to the Capitol in Olympia to watch electors formally cast the state’s allotted ballots for president and vice president. They made three trips with busloads of high school seniors, hoping to spur a lasting interest in the importance of voting. Two other trips were cancelled because of inclement weather. The COVID pandemic made it impossible again this year.

“It was a ghost town. It was like we were the only people in the room” besides the electors and a couple of political dignitaries, Therrell recalled Monday. “Nobody else had any interest. And it’s just comical to realize that now the whole world is watching as the Electoral College votes in each state are counted. We’d have 400 students watching something that, at the time, nobody cared about but now everybody cares about.”

America’s Electoral College system was a compromise reached at the Constitutional Convention in the 1780s. It was created to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson, who called it “the most dangerous blot in our Constitution.” The short version is that when voters cast ballots for president, they’re really choosing a slate of electors. Each state gets an allotted number of electoral votes based on population and having two senators. Five times, candidates who lost the popular vote became president, including the general election four years ago.

Without revealing how they really felt, Wilson and Therrell would debate for their students the merits of the Electoral College vs. popular vote in choosing a president. Wilson argued for the Electoral College; Therrell for the popular vote. They left it up to the students to decide which system should be used. They even made a mini-Electoral College out of their debate, combining popular vote with the vote of individual classes, to see which argument carried the day.

“He won some; I won some,” Wilson said. “If you ask him, he won more. If you ask me, I won more.”

“That is absolutely true,” Therrell said, describing their different recollections.

When it came to the Electoral College, the teachers certainly agreed on one thing: it was best taught by seeing it in action, rather than merely out of a textbook. It became one of their students’ favorite field trips. It also helped them understand why so many resources and millions of dollars are spent each campaign in swing states and why so few visits are made to others.

After more than 40 years in teaching, Wilson counts the field trips to Olympia among his more meaningful efforts to make government accessible to his students. It was all very satisfying, he said.

“We would see the constitutional doctrine in action,” he said.

Therrell likes to think some of his former students were telling spouses, friends or their children on Monday what the Electoral College vote is really like.

Eric Stevick:

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