Thursday, December 10, 2020

Why does the Electoral College exist, and how does it work? 5 essential reads

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt signs an official tally of the Electoral College votes from the 2016 presidential election, in January 2017. AP Photo/Zach Gibson
Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

On Dec. 14, the members of the Electoral College will meet in state capitols across the country and cast their ballots for president and vice president. The expected vote total: 306 for Democrat Joe Biden and 232 for Republican Donald Trump. It will be their votes – not the votes of the nearly 160 million Americans who cast ballots on or before Nov. 3 – that will determine whose presidential term will begin on Jan. 20, 2021.

Over the past several months, The Conversation has asked scholars of the Electoral College to explain how this system was developed and how it works and to describe whether – and how – it gives advantages to certain people based on where they live. We’ve collected highlights from several of those articles here.

The Committee on Postponed Questions
These 11 men agreed on a compromise that created the Electoral College. The Conversation, from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

1. Where did it come from?

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 debated three potential ways to pick a president, explains Purdue University civics educator Philip J. VanFossen: “election by Congress, selection by state legislatures and a popular election – though the right to vote was generally restricted to white, landowning men.”

The idea of a popular election – where the candidate who got the most votes won – was attractive. But the 11 committee members realized the Southern states would not agree, because they wanted to wield more political power based on their ownership of enslaved people.

They ultimately settled, VanFossen writes, on “a system of electors, through which both the people and the states would help choose the president. [It] was a partly national and partly federal solution, and … mirrored other structures in the Constitution.”

That system assigned two U.S. senators to each state, and a number of U.S. representatives based on states’ relative populations – and a number of electors equal to the sum of the senators and representatives. No state would have fewer than three electors, no matter how few people lived there.

2. Benefiting less populous states

That system means voters in different states are treated differently, writes LaGrange College political scientist John Tures.

As he explains, “some critics have complained that the Electoral College system encourages candidates to ignore voters in smaller states like Oklahoma and Mississippi, instead focusing on campaigning in big states like California and New York, which have lots of electoral votes.”

But in reality, the Electoral College gives an advantage to voters in less populous states, Tures finds: “[V]oters in small states have more Electoral College votes per capita than larger, more diverse states, using several different measures – and therefore more power to choose a president than they would have in a national popular election.”

He notes that a similar system for electing Georgia’s governor was overturned in 1963 in a U.S. Supreme Court “ruling that it violated the fundamental principle of ‘one person, one vote.’”

3. A matter of race

Ignoring that principle has repercussions today, reports political scientist William Blake of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: “The system continues to give more power to states whose populations are whiter and more racially resentful.”

His analysis of states’ racial breakdowns and electoral votes finds that “states whose people exhibit more intense anti-Black attitudes, based on their answers to a series of survey questions, tend to have more electoral votes per person.” That’s a measure of how many electoral votes a state has in proportion to the number of people who live there.

Statistically, he found that “if two states’ population numbers indicate each would have 10 electoral votes, but one had substantially more racial resentment, the more intolerant state would likely have 11.”

4. Vulnerable to interference

The Electoral College makes American democracy more vulnerable to hackers, fraudsters and others who might seek to alter the results, explains mathematician Steven Heilman at USC Dornsife.

Noting that “changing just 269 votes in Florida from George W. Bush to Al Gore would have changed the outcome of the entire [2000] national election,” Heilman highlights just how close so many national elections have been over the course of the country’s history.

As he details, “The Electoral College divides one big election into 51 smaller ones – one for each state, plus the District of Columbia. Mathematically speaking, this system is built to virtually ensure narrow victories, making it very susceptible to efforts to change either voters’ minds or the records of their choices.”

Maine’s electors take their oaths before casting their ballots in December 2016. Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

5. Is there a better way?

Westminster College political scientist Joshua Holzer describes the various ways that different countries pick their presidents, and “found better human rights protections in countries that elect presidents who are supported by a majority of voters – which is something U.S. Electoral College does not guarantee.”

He explains plurality voting – a method widely used across the U.S., in which the person who gets the most votes wins. He also looks at runoff voting, with “potentially two rounds of voting. If someone wins more than half the votes in the first round, that candidate is declared the winner. If not, the two candidates with the most first-round votes face off in a second round of voting.”

After laying out other variations, including contingent voting and ranked-choice voting, that let voters express more nuanced preferences, Holzer concludes with a description of an effort that is underway right now, to effectively convert the Electoral College system into a nationwide popular vote.

But, as he observes, that would come with its own problems – just different ones.

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.The Conversation

Jeff Inglis, Politics + Society Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Election 2020: 89 articles to teach you about how American elections really work

How did the U.S. political system get the way it did? jsmith/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Catesby Holmes, The Conversation; Jeff Inglis, The Conversation, and Naomi Schalit, The Conversation

Editors’ note: In a world transformed by a pandemic, few of the fundamentals in Americans’ lives – schools, jobs, even how to shop for groceries – have remained the same. The same is true with the election, where the most basic of the institution’s elements – how, where and when to vote, among them – have changed.

When The Conversation US’s politics editors met to figure out how to provide readers with coverage that would be useful and informative, the approach was clear: a civics lesson. Over the course of roughly 100 articles, our scholars have explained how the U.S. election system works, retold the history of how it got that way and examined what effects and significance those mechanisms have for the nation today.

Here, our team has collected all of these articles, divided thematically, from the very beginning of campaigning through what happens after Election Day itself.

A candidate elbow-bumping a voter in a restaurant
Eugene DePasquale, left, Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, in Harrisburg, Penn., Sept. 19, shows that even the traditional handshake with voters has changed in pandemic-era campaigns. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images


Basic elements of political campaigning

Campaigning in a pandemic

Campaign tactics

A graphic showing text notifications.
Campaigns send lots of texts. Jake Olimb/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

Political conventions

Money in politics

Cory Booker can use money left over from his presidential campaign to run for reelection to the Senate. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Candidates’ debates

Media and public perception

President Elizabeth Keane, played by actress Elizabeth Marvel, stands at a podium in an episode of 'Homeland.'
President Elizabeth Keane of ‘Homeland’ is a craven politician who has a ruinous tenure in office. Showtime


Vice presidential and Cabinet picks

Rep. Bella Abzug speaks to a crowd of some 10,000 at ‘The War is Over’ celebration in Central Park on May 11, 1975, where she called for unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft dodgers in Sweden and Canada. Bettman/Contributer/Getty

International perspectives

A man stands at an outdoor voting booth.
A voter casts a ballot at a mobile voting station in California in May 2020. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The process of voting

History of voting

Voter suppression

Milwaukee voters wait in a social-distancing line, some wearing masks, before voting in the state’s spring elections on April 7. AP Photo/Morry Gash

Many voters face obstacles

Specific voting groups and blocs

Asian Americans leave a polling palce
Asian American voters leave a Temple City, California, polling place in 2012, in the state’s first legislative district that is majority Asian American. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

How to vote

A polling place in a public building with booths and voters.
Voting is important. Make sure you know how to do it! Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Voting in person

Voting by mail

Mailed ballots sit in a box.
In most states, ballots must be mailed in official envelopes. AP Photo/Hans Pennink
A woman looks at papers.
Staff of the House of Representatives review Illinois’ Electoral College vote report in January 2017. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


Electoral College

Election integrity

A white sign with red text that says 'Every Vote Counts.'
Every vote counts – but what does it mean when election results go to court? Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Potential for violence

Who decides the outcome?

The floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993.
Under the Electoral Count Act, Congress supervises the counting of the Electoral College ballots in early January after the presidential election happens. Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

How it all endsThe Conversation

Catesby Holmes, International Editor | Politics Editor, The Conversation; Jeff Inglis, Politics + Society Editor, The Conversation, and Naomi Schalit, Senior Editor, Politics + Society, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Mail-in voting is safe and reliable – 5 essential reads

An election worker in Pennsylvania handles mailed ballots during that state’s primary election in May. AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Time is running out for Americans who want to cast their ballots by mail.

If you want to vote this way but haven’t yet requested a ballot, you should know that it takes time for ballot requests to get from voters to their local election officials, for ballots to get mailed to the voters, and for the completed ballots to make it back to election offices.

The U.S. Postal Service recommends that, this close to the election, people who want to vote by mail request their mail-in ballots as soon as they can, and fill them out and send them back in the mail as soon as possible, as well – before Election Day for sure, but perhaps even earlier, depending on state deadlines.

Many scholars have studied various aspects of mail-in voting, looking at how secure it is, how susceptible to fraud it might be, and what voting officials need to do to handle an influx of ballots arriving by mail. Here we spotlight five recent examples from our archives.

1. Mail-in voting is safe and reliable

In 43 states and the District of Columbia, any citizen can vote by mail.

Edie Goldenberg, a University of Michigan political scientist and public policy scholar, studied mail-in balloting as part of a National Academy of Public Administration working group. Her group found that “voting by mail is rarely subject to fraud, does not give an advantage to one political party over another and can in fact inspire public confidence in the voting process.”

2. Election officials and postal workers are key

Many of the protections that keep mail-in voting safe are “built-in safeguards,” according to Charlotte Hill, who is a former elections commissioner now studying voting laws at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jake Grumbach, a political science professor at the University of Washington.

They explain that special paper, printing details, unique bar codes and other anti-counterfeiting methods in election and postal offices combine to “make it hard for one person to vote fraudulently, and even more difficult to commit voter fraud on a scale capable of swinging election outcomes.”

3. It has bipartisan support

Public confidence in voting by mail is extremely high in Oregon, which has been conducting all elections that way since 1998, writes Priscilla Southwell, a professor emerita of political science at the University of Oregon.

She has been studying mail-in voting for almost that entire time, and has been struck by the degree of public support for continuing to conduct elections that way, writing:

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the system is equitable, fair, reliable and safe is that in two statewide surveys I have conducted over the years, a nearly identical percentage of Oregon Republicans and Democrats strongly support voting by mail, and the same is true of elected officials in the state.”

4. You can keep an eye on things

If you are voting from home, you can make things easier for the people who will be processing and tallying your vote – and those of countless neighbors. Luke Perry, a government professor at Utica College, explains that sending in your ballot early, with a signature that matches the one on your voter-registration card, can ensure your ballot is counted efficiently.

Perry points to an important step voters themselves can take: tracking their ballots. In 44 states and the District of Columbia, people who vote by mail can go online to a statewide site that will display when a ballot has been requested, when it has been mailed to the voter, when it was returned to the election office, and whether it was accepted or rejected. In the remaining six states, some municipalities or counties may provide this option as well – which might allow people whose mail-in ballot was rejected to cast a ballot another way instead.

This helps people feel confident their vote has been counted and may give them enough notice to vote in person if their mail-in ballot encounters delays or other problems,” Perry writes.

5. Be sure to vote alone

One thing to be aware of, write Susan Orr and James Johnson, is that voting is still supposed to involve a secret ballot.

Orr, who teaches political science at The College at Brockport, a part of the State University of New York system, and Johnson, who teaches political science at the University of Rochester, warn that there are powerful interests seeking to coerce people into voting particular ways.

In 2018, Los Angeles landlords threatened tenants with rent increases if a particular ballot initiative passed,” they write. “And in the last two presidential elections, as many as 1 in 4 workers were approached with political information by their employer. … [That] included employer endorsements of referenda or candidates – and even notes in employees’ paychecks threatening layoffs or plant closures if one particular candidate were to win.”

They explain that the key element of democracy that prevents these efforts from controlling the results of an election is the principle of a secret ballot. So if you choose to vote by mail at home, make sure you mark and seal your ballot in private.

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.The Conversation

Jeff Inglis, Politics + Society Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.