The votes that really count have not yet been cast

On the 13th of December, the electoral college meets

In Ohio, a recount is being rejected because the votes have not even been counted completely the first time. Civil rights activists such as Jesse Jackson are outraged, since "Ohio determines the election, but the state has not yet counted the vote." Apparently, Jackson does not realize that the elections for the presidency of the United States have not even taken place yet. The reelection of Bush only becomes legally binding on the 13th of December, when the electors cast their votes. As it turns out, the plebiscite on the second of November only served as a proposal, for the electors are not obligated to cast their votes in accordance with the people they represent. And experts are certain about one thing: although Bush's lead in Ohio has dropped by 17,000 votes since the initial estimates on November 3, there will probably not be a recount before the 13th of December.

On December 13, 2004, the gavel will hit the block: the president of the United States will be elected. As yet, nothing has been decided. In 2000, everyone was concerned about the US Supreme Court, which was said to have selected, not elected Bush. But nothing of the sort ever happened. Rather, the Court put an end to the havoc and stopped the recount. The Supreme Court did not decide who won the election; the electoral college did. The only question is: did it select or elect Bush?

Why was the college created in the first place?

When the United States was founded, there was a fear of the masses among the governing elite along with the Democratic tendencies. After all, everyone had seen what French democracy had led to. Some experts thus argue that the college is an undemocratic instrument created to protect the interests of the elites.

Others counter that the college was only an attempt to make the process of the elections simpler. Just imagine conducting elections around 1800 in an area stretching from New England to Georgia. In addition, political parties practically did not exist back then, and the college was to prevent splintering across the new nation. Finally, the individual states had been afforded many rights in this new Federation, which was necessary to get the small states to join the union at all. And when a state can bundle its electors, it becomes more influential than when it has to throw a minor difference between candidates into the big pot.

This line of reasoning has its merits. We are witnessing similar tendencies today in the EU. While Germany has 29 votes in the EU Council, Luxembourg has 4. Thus, one German vote represents 2.8 million Germans, while one vote from Luxembourg is based on only 100,000 citizens. There seems to be no other way of doing it. The small states would otherwise be smothered by the big ones and hence never even considered joining the union.

In the US, small states are also overrepresented, which is especially interesting for the past elections, in which Bush did not really divide the nation into blue and red states - into the East and West coasts versus the heartland, as has been claimed - but rather into urban and rural areas. Whoever manages to do that and wins the rural votes has good chances of winning the election since the rural population tends to be overrepresented.

But let's get back to our college: in 1888 (23 years after the Civil War) a Republican by the name of Harrison won a majority of the electoral votes although he had lost the majority of the popular vote, as everyone now knows. Some people held that the college was performing the very function that the founding fathers had intended; after all, the Democratic candidate, Cleveland, had won large majorities in the South, but Harrison had won many close elections in the other states. In other words, the college protected the country from being governed by a strong, but regionally concentrated majority.

But there is one thing that makes the electoral college undemocratic regardless of all the practical considerations there may have been: electors are not bound to vote according to the popular vote. They can vote as they wish. And a few renegades have been doing just that again and again in the past 50+ years.

Why are the electors not obligated to vote in accordance with the popular vote?

In 48 states, the winner-takes-all principle applies. Maine and Nebraska allow for the possibility of a split electoral vote. For instance, Maine has four electors. If one candidate wins one district and the other one wins the other, each receives one elector for the district. The person who then wins the most votes in the whole state receives the other two electors. In other words, it is possible for the electors in Maine to have to vote three to one, but in practice the electoral college has never been split either there or in Nebraska.

In practice, however, electors can vote for anyone they want - even for a candidate who didn't even run for office and thus did not deceive any of the popular vote. This is not just a theoretical possibility; it has already happened. While 28 states have passed laws making " faithless electoral votes" illegal, it remains to be seen whether these laws can be enforced, since electors are probably federal, not state officers. In other words, they do not act on behalf of a state, but rather perform a federal duty. And at the federal level, there is no law prohibiting faithless electors.

A web site of the US government puts it into plain English:

Under the Federal system adopted in the U.S. Constitution, the nation-wide popular vote has no legal significance.

Why was this allowed when the college was founded? Well, one reason is probably sheer incompetence. Opponents of this policy simply overlooked this possibility and thus failed to fight against it. (A similar situation recently occurred in Germany, when the state of Saxony did not cast its two votes in the upper house of the German parliament unanimously. The possibility of a split vote had simply been overlooked for over 50 years.) On the other hand, the founding fathers who opposed democracy seemed to feel that the college would protect the country from becoming all too Democratic. For instance, Alexander Hamilton, the main author of the "Federalist Papers", wrote of the college:

A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

Americans do not have direct elections for their president; rather, they vote for the people who then vote for the president for them. While this may, at first glance, appear to be the same kind of system used in many other democracies, in which the party that receives a majority or a coalition of parties with a majority elects a prime minister from its ranks, there are two major differences. First, it is not the US Congress that chooses the president, but a completely separate body created solely for this purpose. Remember: the founding fathers wanted a clear separation between the executive and legislative. They wanted a president, not a prime minister. The second difference is that the electors can vote as they wish, regardless of the popular vote. As James Madison wrote in 1823:

Altho' generally the mere mouths of their Constituents, they may be intentionally left sometimes to their own judgment, guided by further information.

In other words, when Americans vote for the president they are only making nonbinding proposals.

A brief history of the college

The college had hardly been founded when the first chaos occurred. Ironically, the first victim was an advocate of the college. In 1808, 6 electors from New York refused to vote for James Madison, giving their votes instead to a man named Clinton. Madison won anyway, which is why the event has not exactly gone down in history.

In 1820, the college was at it once again. This time, we begin to get a taste of how much the college was a gentleman's club. James Monroe received all of the votes because no other party had put up a candidate for the presidency, but a gentleman from New Hampshire did the nation a favor and voted for John Quincy Adams so that George Washington would be the only president to have received a 100% majority. Incidentally, the three electors "not voting" had passed away between the popular vote and the electoral vote.

Why have elections at all if there's only one candidate? A lot of Americans must have asked themselves the same question, so in 1824 elections did not even take place everywhere. That didn't help matters much: when the electors convened, they did not feel that there was a clear mandate from the people. They thus voted for four candidates from the only remaining party. No one won a majority, so the matter was referred to the House of Representatives, which gave the election to John Quincy Adams. And you thought the proverbial fan had been hit in 2000...

Speaking of "no one to run against": the New York Times reports that there was only one candidate for an office in many states in 2004. For instance, in 75% of the races for the Senate in Arkansas, 73% in Florida, 70% in South Carolina, 62% in New Mexico, and so forth. Overall, only seven incumbents from the House of Representatives (a total of 440 seats) were not reelected. Incumbents are almost certain to be reelected in the US because the districts or redrawn to ensure this very outcome. According to the New York Times, four of the seven incumbents who were not reelected were Democrats from Texas who had literally been cutout of their districts - a process known as gerrymandering. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that "political gerrymandering" (as opposed to "racial gerrymandering") was not illegal.

After the fiasco of 1824, it was politics as usual in 1828 and 1832. Any mandate from the people now seemed better than no mandate at all, especially when you could ignore it anyway. And all that one-party nonsense had proven to be really boring, so the Democrat-Republican Party managed to split into the Democrats... and the Whigs. In 1836, the latter proved to be quite creative advocates of democracy. They knew that electors can vote however the hell they want, so the Whigs sent different candidates for the presidency into different states hoping that they had chosen the man most likely to win that specific area and knowing that Whig electors would come together in the end to vote for one man out of the four. But the trick backfired, and Democrat Van Buren won a majority. That may explain why this little ruse has not been repeated. But all was not lost: the Whigs had proven that Americans were not informed enough to vote - after all, many of them had not even realized that one party was running four candidates. (Fortunately, we have late-night television today.)

It seems only consistent that the Whig Party later spun off the American Know Nothing Party, which aimed to take advantage of the ignorance of Americans. Its members worked together covertly (not all conspiracies are theories). They either claimed to be Democrats or Republicans, or they simply said I don't know nothin' when asked about party affiliation. In 1856, a Know Nothing even won the electors from the State of Maryland. Some people (who obviously suffer from paranoia) maintain that the Know Nothings have been running the country since...

Now let's jump ahead to 1876. We are skipping the Civil War, but nothing much happened with the electoral college during that time. In the meantime, the country was having real problems remaining a union. And for its 100th birthday, the country celebrated with a scandal: In Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, Republican voters were apparently scared away from the polls, and everyone spoke of fraud. (These states were incidentally also the only ones with federal troops still stationed in them for Reconstruction.) According to the governors of these states, the Republican had won the election, but the Democratic senates in these states provided different figures for their candidate.

After Democrats in the US Senate threatened to filibuster the Republican victory decided by a special "Electoral Commission" consisting - you guessed it - of a majority of Republicans, an agreement was reached. The Republicans could have the White House, but the South would no longer be "reconstructed".

After Reconstruction, the country agreed to disagree: the South voted Democratic (states' rights - so you didn't have to take too much crap from the North); the North, Republican (with the emphasis on the federal government, i.e. the union - back then, the noun "United States" was being changed from the plural to the singular ("the United States is [before the Civil War: are] God's own country") to impress in the minds of all Americans, once and for all, that the republic was indivisible). From 1880 to 1948, the Bible Belt voted Democratic, and when this block finally disintegrated after 68 years the college came back into the spotlight.

In 1948, an elector from Tennessee voted for the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. It was a rebellion, not an honorable act from the old gentleman's club of yore. The Democrats had reigned supreme in the South for some 70 years, but after 13 years of Roosevelt the party had become too "liberal" for the South. The Democrats would soon be calling for something called "civil rights". Soon, they would force racial integration. Not exactly the kind of thing Southern whites were likely to take kindly to. But Strom Thurmond, now there was a real Democrat from the old days - a man who knew that you might not be able to leave the Union, but you could damn well see to it that it left you alone. "States' rights" was the ticket: the South knew how to make its own laws, thank you very much, and the federal government was to be as weak as possible.

Here, we begin to fathom one of the greatest mysteries of US culture and politics. As every child in the US knows, the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, freed the slaves. He didn't mean to; he just wanted to save the Union, and the industrial capitalism of the North did not work well with the slavery-based agriculture of the South (not to mention the attitudes of ornery slave masters). So in 1862, shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote:

If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Lincoln's General William Sherman (of "slash and burn" fame) promised the slaves 40 acres and a mule, but he was a general, not a politician. The politicians would have none of it. All along, Republicans had wanted to give blacks the same rights and opportunities as whites. In other words, they wanted to exploit blacks just as they were exploiting immigrants, not differently. The idea that a slave could hardly become an informed citizen in a democracy overnight, much less a successful entrepreneur - that was too academic for the Republicans.

And the Democrats? I spent 22 years in the South. There's a saying down there: "The North loves the race and hates the individual; the South hates the race and loves the individual". What does that mean? Well, during slavery lots of white Southerners claimed that you couldn't just free blacks because they would not be able to take care of themselves. And anyway, they were well taken care of on the plantation. It may be hard for many of my readers to imagine a grimmer cynicism, but I assure you there is at least something to the first clause of that Southern saying, for the North did nothing for blacks after they had been freed. The North's "love" of blacks was purely philosophical, not practiced.

A little bit of this love for the individual did, however, eventually bear fruit among the Democrats. Some Southerners didn't take kindly to that and turned their backs on their party - first, by trying to found a third party and more recently by joining ranks with the Republicans.

It thus came to pass that the South voted for a third party in 1948 - the Dixiecrats - and, by doing so, voted for their beloved country that had lost the Civil War almost 90 years before. The Dixiecrats lost the elections, but one elector voted against the people and against standard procedure in Tennessee. And once again, this rebellion - now commonly referred to as "unfaithful electors" - did not affect the outcome of the elections.

In 1952, all went as planned in the college, but the proverbial fan was soiled once again in 1956. An elector from Alabama did not vote for the Democrat but rather, out of protest, for a judge from his hometown. And once again, his unfaithfulness did not affect the outcome of the elections.

In 1960, our fan is so heavily laden, it can hardly turn. For the first time since 1836, politicians - this time in the South - attempted to use a quirk in the electoral college. You see, electors can be "unpledged", meaning that they do not have to vote along party lines. So an independent party was created, and this third-party even received the most votes in Mississippi, whose eight electors went to a certain Harry F. Byrd, a strong proponent of racial segregation. He then not only received a few votes from unfaithful electors in Alabama, but even one from a Republican in Oklahoma (who obviously lacked air-conditioning). The civil rights movement was underway, but not everyone was moving along peaceably.

In 1963, the liberal Democratic President from New England named Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas. His vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson, became president. Thank God, you might be thinking, now those Southerners are finally gonna calm down. No chance, the South had already changed colors. Since then, the South has only voted as a block for a Democratic President once, and that was for a born-again Christian from Georgia in 1976 named Jimmy Carter.

In 1964, the South made its defection from the Democrats clear and voted for a Republican from Arizona, while the rest of the country (except for Arizona) voted Democrat. Goldwater may not have exactly been for racial segregation, but he was at least against the federal government meddling with the mandate of the states. And at the time, the federal government was working hard to abolish racial segregation in the South - clearly overstepping its bounds in the minds of many Southerners. Goldwater lost, but he laid the foundation for Ronald Reagan.

In 1968, the South couldn't find an acceptable candidate among the Republicans or the Democrats, so they did their own thang and voted for the former governor of Alabama, George Wallace, a man who had proclaimed during his inauguration as governor in 1962, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever".

This time, the college not only had an unfaithful elector - this time in North Carolina, with the vote going to none other than Wallace - but, for the first time, Congress dealt with the matter. And as it was resolved that the unfaithful vote would be accepted, a precedent seems to have been set. If so, no elector need ever fear retribution for voting against the popular vote.

In 1972, there was again an unfaithful voter, just not in the South this time, for Nixon had won the whole country except for Massachusetts and Washington DC. No, this time a Republican from Kentucky wanted to jumpstart the Libertarian Party, so a man by the name of Hospers received one electoral vote although he had only received 3,676 popular votes.

If you liked that, you'll love 1976: Ronald Reagan, who had not even run for the presidency (which may explain why he didn't receive a single popular vote), did win the heart of one Republican elector from Washington State, who voted unfaithfully to protest the abortion rights movement - and anyway, the Republican candidate had clearly lost the election.

Under Reagan, everything went smoothly in the college, but in 1988 an elector found out that she could vote however she wanted. To protest against this freedom, she switched the names of the president and vice president to draw attention to the problem.

Can't seem to recall that happening? No, the restlessness in the college is not well known to potential electors, much less among the general public, even though things have been pretty hectic since 1948. Americans still believe they vote for the president, and as long as these unfaithful electors do not affect the outcome of an election, nothing will change.

Remember when elector Barbara Lett-Simmons from the District of Columbia cast an empty ballot in 2000 instead of voting for Al Gore to protest the lack of Senate representation of the citizens in the nation's capital? Of course not, everyone was busy talking about the election scandal...

What lesson do we learn?

On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, everything will probably go as planned in the college. Probably no elector will vote unfaithfully if it would change the outcome of the election. But the college is a powder keg that could blow up any time. In addition to the possibility that a group of electors might conspire to vote unfaithfully, more than one elector could elect to do so by chance. And if they change the outcome of the election, the whole world will know that Americans have never directly elected a president.

All maps courtesy of The Free Dictiononary under the GNU Free Documentation License. (Craig Morris)