CONFUSING CHOOSING?

Electoral College remains an oft-debated, oft-misunderstood part of the presidential process

For Weekly SurgeDecember 12, 2012 

On Monday (Dec. 17), Jim Jerow of Pawleys Island will pay a visit to Columbia.

He won’t go for Christmas shopping, to visit friends, the award-winning zoo, the historic houses or to check out a USC Gamecocks basketball game.

Jerow will be there to formally cast his vote for Mitt Romney for President of the United States.

Did that sentence make you do a double take?

You weren’t reading it wrong. Yes, Jerow will be voting for Mitt Romney on Monday.

But, you ask, didn’t we all do that on Nov. 6? Didn’t the nation’s voters re-elect President Barack Obama? Isn’t that a done deal?

The answers are yes, yes…and not quite.

Contrary to what you may believe, the presidential election isn’t quite over yet. It won’t be over until Monday, when people such as Jerow will be getting together across the country to complete the process.

Jerow, like all these others, is a member of South Carolina’s – and consequently, the nation’s – Electoral College.

Those two words are probably among the most used and most misunderstood political terms during any election cycle in this country. We hear and read them used ad nauseum by TV pundits, talk radio blowhards, political columnists, pollsters and politicians themselves, but not many people know what they really involve. And fewer still probably take time to realize that the Electoral College isn’t just a term pulled out of the ether (and it’s not a university or institution of higher learning). The College is made up of flesh-and-blood men and women, elected by their peers, who get together after the election and finalize their state’s votes for a particular candidate.

What many people don’t realize is that when they cast their vote for president, they aren’t actually voting for the candidate directly – they’re voting for the candidate’s electors. Those electors then, in turn, cast their votes for the candidate who carries the state.

So essentially, if you’re a South Carolina resident who voted for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, you were actually voting for people such as Jerow who actually will then complete the process of voting for your chosen candidate. Jerow and the other eight Republican electors signed a pledge that they would support Romney and Ryan, and that means they will cast their vote for those guys on Monday, even though their candidates lost.

Confusing? Yes. Fair? Most people think so, but many disagree and say this way of doing things is outdated.

For right now, however, the Electoral College is the way we do things, and for people such as Jerow, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in history.

“What I’ve done this far in the process is pretty benign – I’ve just filled out the papers you need to be an elector – but as the date gets closer I realize it’s quite an honor,” Jerow said in an interview with Surge. “I’ve been involved in the Republican party at the local and state levels since I retired back here in 1994, and I really think this will be the climax of my service. I think it’s time to let new people move in.”

Jerow, 79, is a retired newspaper advertising executive who grew up in Kingstree, and then moved away to work for papers in Ohio, Minnesota and Tennessee before moving back to Pawleys Island. Like many of the other GOP electors in South Carolina, as well as the electors for other parties, he’s spent many years in service to his chosen party, and its leadership selected him and the others because they figured they could be trusted to support the candidates the national party selected.

The Electoral College is an honor and a milestone for politically savvy people like Jerow, but to many people it’s confusing and downright archaic. So here are the answers to some basic questions about exactly what is going to be happening in Columbia in less than a week from now:

How did this whole Electoral College thing get started anyway?

The Electoral College process was developed by the founding fathers largely because, to put it bluntly, they weren’t exactly sure if the general population of the United States was qualified to be trusted with selecting its own leader.

“Why did they create the college and not provide for a popular election? They didn’t really trust the people to elect that high of a position – that’s what it came down to,” said Mikel Norris, assistant professor of political science at Coastal Carolina University in Conway.

According to the official Electoral College Web site, the College was formed essentially as a compromise between the president being elected by a vote in Congress and by a popular vote of “qualified citizens.” Remember that at the time the Constitution was drawn up, the prevailing opinion among much of white, wealthy, male leadership of the country was that only certain people should be qualified to vote in the first place. It took several generations, of course, before people of other races and women got to vote, but at the time the Constitution was drawn up, it was the founding fathers’ way of giving the general population at least some responsibility for their own destiny.

“A secondary reason for why it was chosen was federalism,” Norris said. “The U.S. government represents the states as well as the people, and the states by using the electoral college have a direct say in who is chosen as president. That’s why smaller states are very fond of the college…they believe it gives them a little more say in the choice of president.”

Just who are these people who are the electors? Can Joe the Plumber become one, or do you have to be swimming in money and influence?

Technically, Joe the Plumber, Jane the Nurse and any other man or woman who is a citizen of the United States could become a member of the electoral college.

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t really talk much about what qualifies somebody to be an elector. About the only thing it says is that a current senator, congressional representative or someone holding a federal “office of trust or profit” can’t be appointed an elector. A little skirmish called the Civil War prompted the 14th Amendment to say that state officials who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S. or harbored the country’s enemies also can’t be an elector. Thankfully, that provision hasn’t been an issue very often.

In South Carolina, electors are chosen by the executive committees of the political parties. Three candidates are nominated from each congressional district, and then the entire committee votes for the slate of electors. Many of those who are nominated are active at some level in their party at a local or state level, but that’s just about all they have in common.

The nine GOP electors this year, for instance, range in age from people in their 40s to retirees in their 60s and 70s. Professions and experience vary widely too. Elector Roy Lindsey, from the small Orangeburg County town of Neeses, is a farmer. Sandra Stroman of Chester is a retired history and U.S. government teacher. Charleston resident Cindy Costa, is a business manager at her husband’s surgical center.

The main parties are making at least some attempts to reach out to the future generation of leaders. GOP elector Drew McKissick, a political consultant from Gadsden in Richland County, is 43 and was first named an elector for the 2008 election, when he was 39.

Conway resident Cedric Spain, meanwhile, was to be named one of the state’s Democratic electors even though he has yet to celebrate his 40th birthday.

“This is my fifth term serving as a party representative from Horry County, and I was surprised and humbled to be nominated and elected over some people who (had) been working for the party for 30 years, who have a lot of political clout,” Spain said.

Spain, who works as a substitute teacher for the Horry County School District and is also a church music minister, might have been elected because he represents badly needed new blood for the Palmetto State’s foundering Democratic party, which hasn’t been dominant in the state since 1980.

“We obviously need more young people, whatever their political affiliation, to get involved in the process and get on the band wagon,” Spain said. “It’s important for young people to know that people like me, when I’m not even 40, can have an important part in the process. I was nominated by people in their 60s and 70s who counted me worthy enough to represent South Carolina and our new congressional district.”

In South Carolina, it’s not just the two main political parties – Republicans and Democrats -- who draw up a slate of electors. All of the parties who are certified to be on the ballot have to come up with their own electors. That means this year, for instance the Constitution Party, the Green Party and the Libertarians all picked electors who duly signed their pledge cards and sent them to the Secretary of State’s office. All five parties’ roster of electors included men and women of a variety of ages and backgrounds, from different parts of the state, although Charleston and the Upstate seemed to be more heavily represented than other areas. The Democrats’ list included party heavies such as Dick Harpootlian, the party’s state chairman, and the list for the Constitution Party included the name of a famous athlete, Tony Romo.

Don’t freak out. The Cowboys’ quarterback isn’t doing double duty as a South Carolina citizen/politico when he really ought to be focused on trying to get his team to the playoffs. This Tony Romo is Pastor Tony Romo from Greenville, a well-known figure in conservative politics in that part of the state. His wife, Margot Romo, also was one of the Constitution Party’s electors. Your Surge reporter tried several times to reach the Romos but it didn’t work out.

Even though each party gets to select its own electors, only those from the party that carries the state get to make the trip to Columbia for the official vote. That means that for every election since 1980, it’s the GOP whose electors got to participate in the actual voting process, even when a Democrat won the general election.

Democrat Spain said he obviously would have loved it if President Obama carried South Carolina, but being denied a trip to Columbia doesn’t dull the honor of being named an elector in the first place.

What exactly happens when these folks are in Columbia?

The electors don’t just show up, sign their John Hancock, shake hands, and leave. The process is cut-and-dry in some states, but not in South Carolina. Since these men and women have a role to play in state and national history, they get to do it with a little minor pomp and circumstance.

“There are different ways of doing this, but since I’ve been elected, I’ve placed a lot more emphasis on the electoral college,” said South Carolina Secretary of State Hammond, who was first elected in 2002. “They could just meet and sign the certificate of vote, but I like to have more of a ceremony.”

The official ceremony will be held at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 17 in the Solomon Blatt building in downtown Columbia, in front of an audience of some public officials, the electors’ invited guests, students and other members of the public.

Hammond said the proceedings go like this: There’s an invocation, and then each elector has the opportunity to speak briefly. The group then elects a president and a secretary. The electors officially cast their votes, tally them, and give them to Hammond.

After Hammond receives their votes, the electors must sign six copies of what is called a “certificate of vote,” and he certifies that they have cast their vote for the selected candidate. One copy is sent to the U.S. Senate, two to the national archives, two to Hammond’s office, and one to Chief U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Perry.

All of the electoral votes will be read and tallied by the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6. Only then will the 2012 presidential election be considered a done deal.

So just why do we keep this up? Why not elect the president by popular vote?

That opinion has been on the rise for the past two or three election cycles. With all the advances in technology and changes in the way people can cast their vote, many voters – especially those younger than 50 – no longer see the point of the electoral college.

One of the electors, Drew McKissick of Gadsden in Richland County, who is 43, said he would like more people in his demographic and younger to realize why the electoral college was established in the first place and why it has worked all these years.

“The College is important because it helps prevent small states from being ignored, and it prevents candidates from trying to run up their vote scores by just going to places with large populations,” he said. “As it is now, the candidates have to get out to all areas of the country to get their message across, because every state has a role to play in the electoral college. It helps keep geographic diversity in the election process, and that’s lost on some folks.”

Essentially, supporters say, the electoral college works because it allows a voter from a tiny rural community in, say, Montana, Vermont or … yes, South Carolina … to potentially have as much say in who gets to be president as people who live in more urban, populated states such as New York or Texas.

Critics of the electoral college, however, in recent years have argued that the electoral college causes candidates to focus too much on voters in the so-called “swing states”, where no one party is dominant, because those states’ electoral college votes can essentially help a candidate cruise to victory if he or she gets most of them.

The “swing state” focus is why President Obama and Romney nearly drove Ohio residents insane with constant campaign commericals and practically camped out at times in parts of Iowa. South Carolina, meanwhile, didn’t get much post-primary attention at all because it’s practically written in stone that the state will vote Republican.

There have been many challenges to the electoral college process through the years, but none have succeeded.

Norris said one of the most serious modern challenges came between 1969-71 during the 91st Congress. Congressional critics of the process maintained that the results of the 1968 election, when Richard Nixon won the electoral college but less than 1 percent more of the popular votes than opponent Hubert Humphrey, showed the flaws in the system.

At that time, Norris said, South Carolina was one of the few states vehemently against amending the Constitution to get rid of the electrol college.

“Usually the people who complain the most about wanting to change the electoral college are the losers of the election,” Norris said. “They don’t realize that changing the college is not really the cure for their ills. Another reason to keep it is really the argument South Carolina used back in the late ‘60s – the system has its flaws, but it has worked, and we probably shouldn’t just go around with a red pen and change the Constitution just because we don’t like the results of an election.”

GOP elector Costa of Charleston agrees with McKissick and Norris.

“I’m very strongly in favor of the electoral process, number one because it’s constitutional,” she said. “A lot of people are goaded into thinking it’s an old-fashioned idea beyond it’s time, but it was well thought out by men who gave up their fortunes for this nation to found it. It’s the fairest and most equitable way to select a president because every district and area of the country is represented. If it wasn’t for the electoral college, some people from smaller areas might say ‘Why vote? It doesn’t matter.’”

Like it or not, the electoral college system looks like it will be the law of the land for the near future, and at least for now, it seems to offer the most people the best chance to make their voting voice heard.

Nobody can tell if in a couple of decades if we’ll have switched to some sort of popular voting scheme where you can send in your vote from an iPhone while on the elliptical at the gym. For now, those involved in the process say it represents the best of what this country is about.

“It’s an honor just to be involved,” Hammond said. “ I tell people that we might talk about democracy a lot, but when you see those electors actually casting their vote, and certifiying that certificate of vote, you’re actually witnessing democracy in action.”

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