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Electoral College Its role in 2000?

by Paul Darst

STAFF WRITER

Election Day, 1876 should have been a good one for Samuel J. Tilden.

The Democratic candidate for president garnered 4,288,546 votes in that election, 254,235 more than his Republican opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes.

But Tilden did not go on to become our 19th president. Hayes won the election despite winning fewer overall votes.

The reason: The Electoral College.

In that close race, Hayes earned 185 electoral votes, compared to Tilden's 184.

Although this situation has happened only twice in our 224 years of history, during close elections like this year's, the Electoral College could come in to play.

"Conventional wisdom is thrown out the window when a race is this close," said Michael Fulda, professor of political science at Fairmont State College. "Could (the college) play a role? Yes. Will it play a role? That's anybody's guess."

The possibility of a repeat of 1876 or 1884, when Grover Cleveland lost his bid for a second consecutive term, has political pundits wondering if this year will be the third time the popular and electoral votes go in different directions.

"Since it's so close, some have started playing with the arithmetic," Fulda said referring to some kinds of polls. "If he wins here, here and here, and loses there, there and there, he might still win according to the Electoral College."

Although the phrase, "Electoral College," does not appear in the constitution, it is established in Article II, Section 1 of our founding document.

That part of the constitution establishes that each state will get a number of electoral votes based on its congressional delegation.

It is the votes of those electors, not of the people, that determine who wins the presidency.

Today, candidates must acquire at least 270 electoral votes to win.

Under the system outlined in the constitution, West Virginia has five electoral votes because we have two senators and three members of Congress.

Other states have far more. California has the most with 54, which is one reason candidates spend so much time there.

The fewest a state can have is three because each one must have two senators and at least one member of Congress. Several states have only three.

In his classes at Fairmont State, Fulda tells his students that the presidential election is conducted in January, not November when other races are decided.

Nov. 7 will not be the end of the presidential selection process, but just the beginning for electors.

On Election Day, voters will cast their votes for a presidential ticket, but they will unwittingly also vote for electors, according to the National Archives and Records Administration Web site.

Those electors will meet in their respective states on Dec. 18 to vote for president. Votes must be sent to the President of the Senate and other designated officials by Dec. 27.

Votes of the electors will be counted during a joint session of congress on Jan. 6, 2001.

Only when that process is complete will the nation truly have a president and vice president elect.

So why did the nation's founders chose such a complicated system for selecting the president?

"For one thing, this was not something new," Fulda said. "This kind of system had been used already in Europe in a number of places. The Holy Roman Empire comes to mind."

The founders adopted this method, in part because they did not trust the people with such an important decision as selection of the president, Fulda said.

"You have to keep it in the context of the times," he said. "They really were revolutionaries. This was a time when other people were ruled by kings and emperors."

Another reason the framers decided upon the elector system is because communication was more difficult in the late 1700s, Fulda said.

"They assumed correctly that the people didn't know about who was running," he said. "The electors themselves didn't know. They got together (in Washington), talked about the choices, and voted."

Although those reasons are outdated today, the Electoral College has endured. One reason is that changing would require a constitutional amendment.

And since a split between the electoral and popular votes has not happened in more than 100 years, there has been little public sentiment to undertake that process, Fulda said.

Although our votes do not directly elect the president, completing a ballot still is important, according to the records administration Web site. The electors pledged to the candidate who wins a majority of the state's popular vote are the ones who will represent us in the Electoral College.

More information about the Electoral College is available at the National Archives and Records Administration Web site on the Internet at: "www.nara.gov/fedreg/elctcoll/index.html."

Staff writer Paul Darst can be reached at 626-1404 or by e-mail at pdarst@exponent-telegram.com.

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