Dinner table discussion: Electoral college, faithless electors, third-party effects, and runoffs

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Somehow tonight around the dinner table we got to talking about the Electoral College -- the 538 people who really get to vote for President of the United States. I talked about the two groups of seven Oklahomans that will be on our November 6 ballot -- seven pledged to vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, seven pledged to vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden -- about how Oklahomans will vote for one group or another, and the group with the most votes will gather in Oklahoma City in December to cast their ballots for president and vice president. Those ballots will be sent to Congress, where they will be opened in early January and counted in a joint session of Congress, and if a candidate gets at least 270 electoral votes, he will become president.

As I describe how electors vote, my 12-year-old daughter came up with a great question: What if an elector doesn't vote for the candidate he's pledged to vote for? I told her about faithless electors in the past, like the fellow in 1976 who voted for Ronald Reagan instead of Gerald Ford, but that they had never swayed an election. I told her about the year she was born, 2000, when it was close enough that as few as two faithless electors would have changed the result, and there was talk of Democratic efforts to pry loose a few Bush electors by threatening electors with exposure of embarrassing personal information. A faithless elector might be subject to fines, but it wouldn't change the effect of his vote.


My daughter's response to all this was that it would be important for the Republican Party not to choose Ron Paul supporters as electors. I told her that Oklahoma's Republican elector candidates had already been picked and explained how one was chosen at each congressional district convention, and two were chosen at the state convention. Larry Williamson, a long-time party volunteer who had supported Santorum in the primary, was nominated from our district. He spoke about the history and importance of the electoral college and pledged to support the party nominee. He won over a handful of other candidates, including our nominee from 2008 -- she'd already had a turn. I explained that we try to pick people with a long history of party involvement and loyalty, rather than someone who is new and whose loyalties aren't yet proven.

She also asked about what would happen if Ron Paul supporters broke off to form a third party -- another great question. After the dinner dishes were cleared away, I opened the laptop and showed her the map of the 1992 presidential election, and how Bill Clinton won the presidency with only 43% of the vote nationwide and a majority only in his home state of Arkansas and the District of Columbia. I told her about George H. W. Bush's broken promise on taxes, Ross Perot's candidacy and how it siphoned off enough votes from Bush in enough states to allow Clinton to win a plurality and the electoral votes.

We looked at the 2000 vote, too, when the Green Party took enough votes in New Hampshire alone to have flipped the state and the election to Al Gore. I showed the kids the 1968 map -- the last time a third-party candidate (George Wallace) won electors by finishing first in a state. In many states that Nixon won, it's plausible that Wallace pulled enough votes to keep Humphrey from winning -- enough votes might have changed to give Humphrey the win in a head-to-head battle.

That led to a conversation about runoffs. We looked at the 1992 Georgia Senate election, when the Democrat incumbent, Wyche Fowler, finished just ahead of Republican Paul Coverdell, but with a Libertarian in the race, no one had a majority. Three weeks later, the Republican won the head-to-head runoff with the Democrat. Then we looked at the 1991 Louisiana governor's race, when incumbent governor Buddy Roemer, whom polls showed beating each of the other candidates in a head-to-head matchup, finished a close third, leaving Louisiana voters a distasteful choice in the runoff between "the crook" (Edwin Edwards) and "the Klansman" (David Duke).

One way to avoid that sort of problem is multiple runoffs, removing one candidate each round, which my daughter observed would take forever. The alternative vote (instant runoff voting) is another way to solve the problem, and we looked at the seven-candidate 2011 Irish presidential election, which went through four counts, to see how that system works.

We looked one year's results in California, which featured a long list of odd parties, including Communist candidate Guy Hall. Yes, there's a Communist Party in the U. S., and they used to run their own presidential candidates. Nowadays they just encourage their members to vote for Democrats.

The six-year-old boy was mainly interested in the meaning of the different colors on the maps. My daughter wanted to know why the Democrats were red and the Republicans blue, contrary to what she usually sees. I told her that it made more sense for Democrats to be red, since red symbolizes socialism and communism all over the world, while blue is the color of Britain's Conservative Party. Dave Leip of U. S. Election Atlas says his color scheme has nothing to do with ideology or symbolism; he picked a scheme when he started his site circa 1996, before the famous 2000 USA Today map of results by county which brought about a standardization on Republican red and Democrat blue.

MORE: Great comment from pollster "Blue Pat" McFerron, who also remembers when red was reserved for communism & socialism and blue was for capitalism.

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Pat McFerron said:

Thanks for posting things like this. Good to know my family is not the only one with discussions such as these.

We recently went back and looked at some youtube clips of coverage of Reagan's victory in 1980 -- and my children were amazed that the Republican states were blue. I hate it that we lost that battle.

When I was in graduate school at The American University in the International Development program, we divided the 120+ of us into three categories for the model of third world development in which we most agreed. There were the "Blues" -- those believing in capitalism; the "Reds" -- those believing in socialism/communism (which included all but one professor) and the "Greens" then a new group committed to environmental stewardship and sustainability (the other remaining professor). Out of our class, there were two of us who claimed to be blues. For the next two years, I was known as "Blue Pat" - a label I would still wear proudly if not for the more recent change in nomenclature.

Norman BeBoer said:

Regarding the Red vs. Blue dichotomy, my oldest son Michael gave a very profound observation a couple years ago on the red vs. blue states: He said (he was about eight or nine at the time)"When you die you turn blue, when your are still alive you are red." -Not bad out of the mouth of a babe!

Laramie Hirsch said:

Michael Bates,

Isn't it illegal here in Oklahoma to be able to vote for third parties?

I heard that the other day.

Not illegal, but it's very difficult for a party to qualify for official status and then to maintain that status. The Reform Party and Libertarian Party had official status for a time but lost it when their candidates failed to reach a certain threshold of the vote.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 31, 2012 10:34 PM.

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