In the presidential election on Nov. 8, if voting Democrat, Alaskans will choose June Degnan, D’Arcy Hutchings and Victor Fischer. If voting Republican, they will choose Sean Parnell, Jacqueline Tupou or Carolyn Leman. Or maybe they will choose a slate from the Constitution Party, the Green Party or the Libertarian Party.
Vic Fischer? Sean Parnell? You might ask. Aren’t we voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the other candidates?
That’s one of the peculiarities of the United States presidential and vice presidential election process. Although the ballot asks us to circle the box next to the names of the candidates, we’re actually voting for a slate of electors who will cast their votes in the Electoral College. It’s not voters who elect our next president, but the 538 electors selected in statewide contests, including the District of Columbia.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Kachemak Bay Campus assistant professor of history Jeffrey Meyers. “It’s hard for people to understand ‘I’m not voting for the president but for the electors.’”
At 11 a.m. Dec. 19, the three electors of the party that wins the popular vote in Alaska will meet at the Alaska Library Archives Museum in Juneau and cast one vote each for their candidate.
Those votes are then sealed and sent to the President of the Senate, who then opens and reads them as well as other state and district electoral votes before both houses of Congress on Jan. 6.
As archaic as the Electoral College might seem, it’s still how the United States selects its president. The threshold to win isn’t a simple majority of all popular votes cast — as Democratic Party candidate Al Gore got in 2000 — but at least 270 out of 538 electoral votes.
The Electoral College came about because the nation’s founders were nervous about giving too much power to citizens.
“Most of them didn’t trust the people to elect the right person,” Meyers said. “They didn’t want direct democracy in the least. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison didn’t want people like you and me voting.”
Each state gets two electors for its U.S. senators and then an elector for each representative. D.C. has three electors. Alaska has three electors while California, the biggest prize in the contest, has 55. While that might seem unfair to Alaska, for the number of residents per elector we come out ahead, with a lower elector/number of residents ratio. Each of our electors is worth about 245,000 residents while in California it’s one elector per 711,000 residents. If Alaska had the same ratio as California, we’d only have one elector. Giving small states equal or better clout on a per-capita basis was part of the plan of the founding fathers who devised the Electoral College system. In a national election, Alaska’s 530,000 registered voters would be less than a small city in the Lower 48.
“That’s a good point,” Meyers said of how the system gives power to smaller states. “That’s one of the reasons why the Electoral College is. Really, at the beginning they (the founding fathers) were discussing what kind of power states have vs. the federal government.”
The Electoral College also was a compromise to make smaller states feel like they’re part of the union. Looking back at history after the revolution, “A lot of the people in the South were very loyalist,” Meyers said. “You’re telling them now you’re part of the United States, and now you’re giving them some reason why they want to stay.”
The Electoral College process also can be compared to a contest like the World Series. In “Math Against Tyranny,” an article by Will Hively in the Sept. 30, 2004, issue of Discover Magazine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Alan Natapoff says a direct, popular vote would be like the overall number of runs scored in a series and the Electoral College would be like the series itself. In the 1960 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees scored 55 runs to the Pirates’ 27. The Pirates, though, won the series, four games to three.
“Runs must be grouped in a way that wins games just as popular votes must be grouped in a way that wins states,” Hively writes.
Champion baseball teams should win close contests through not just home runs, but good fielding, pitching and running.
“A presidential candidate worthy of office, by the same logic, should have broad appeal across the whole nation, and not just play strongly on a single issue to isolated blocs of voters,” Hively writes.
“It’s the idea that all states have a say, big or small,” Meyers said.
But the bottom line is the founding fathers didn’t trust the average voter, Meyers said
“They were afraid of mob rule. They said, ‘Look what happens with mob rule. We just had a revolution. We were the mob. We don’t want that to happen again.’”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.