First 'Uncomfortable Conversations' lecture covers the Electoral College

Category:  News
Friday, September 27th, 2019 at 11:50 AM
First 'Uncomfortable Conversations' lecture covers the Electoral College by Zeila Hobson
Brian Lasher (left), A.P. History teacher at Collegiate Academy in Erie, and EU's Dr. Gerry Gendlin (right) discuss the function of the Electoral College. | Photo: Shaddai Crosby

“Americans choose the president using the Electoral College,” began Chris LaFuria, communications director at Edinboro, as he opened up the first Uncomfortable Conversations panel of the fall 2019 semester.

The panel, titled “The People’s Will,” was held on the first floor of the Baron-Forness Library and focused on the U.S. Electoral College. 

LaFuria continued: “What is it? Why do we have it? Why have some U.S. presidents, including two of the last three, received fewer popular votes than their rival candidates, yet still won the presidency? Is the Electoral College still relevant? And if we wanted to change it, is that even possible?”

As noted on the National Archives website, “the Electoral College is a process, not a place.” Each state is allotted an amount of electors based on the state’s population and therefore its congressional delegation. For each Senator, two electors are allotted. For each member of the House of Representatives, the state is allotted one elector. Washington D.C. is also allotted three electoral votes and is considered a state for the purposes of the Electoral College.

Currently, the Electoral College consists of 538 electors. To win the electoral vote, a presidential or vice presidential candidate requires a majority vote of 270.

Three panelists took turns diving deeper into various questions surrounding the process, some of which have complicated answers. 

Brian Lasher, a career naval officer with an impressive resume featuring military work all over the globe, was the first panelist. Now a history teacher at Collegiate Academy (he teaches at the AP level), Lasher offered a historical background of the Electoral College. He then broke down the voting mechanisms further.

Lasher then noted the major cultural contributions of the ancient Greeks —democracy and philosophy — and how these ideological contributions relate to the Electoral College. 

“Democracy is really what this conversation is about,” he said. Lasher continued on to explain that the famed Greek philosopher Aristotle described “a true form of government of many” as a constitutional government in which the majority would vote and there would be “limitations and restrictions to how that right was exercised.” Lasher asserted that the Electoral College is how the Founding Fathers limited and restricted the voting rights of the majority, in order to avoid tyranny of the majority. 

“Just because something hasn’t been utilized doesn’t mean it is not still relevant,” he said of the Electoral College. Lasher then stated that the true relevance of the institution “is how the vote is proportioned.” Despite losing the popular vote, presidents can win if they have a coalition of states backing them in the Electoral College. 

The next panelist to speak was Dr. Gerry Gendlin of Edinboro’s Political Science Department. A professor of international politics, Gendlin is often looked to as a source for global affairs. 

He also began with some time on the history of the Electoral College, mentioning the blossoming of the U.S. as a country and the men who tended to her: the Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution. According to Gendlin, the framers did not trust the will of the majority. Back then, the majority consisted largely of uneducated farmers, and the framers wanted to place a buffer between the people and the presidency to “filter out the passions of the majority.”

 “A buffer is not a barrier,” said Gendlin, and “the Electoral College channels popular sentiment through a filter.” This “filter” is the will of the elected representatives chosen by the people of a state, who then exercise their voting power via the Electoral College, he explained. 

According to Gendlin, the application of representatives is what makes America an “indirect democracy” or a Republic, and the Electoral College is a necessary institution that consolidates state power while allowing the people a say in who governs them. The people have a role, but the foundation of the U.S. federal government system is built on state power, he explained. 

“Electors are voting on behalf of their state,” said Gendlin. Therefore, “The states decide the presidency.” This led to a discussion of the importance of states and their powers.

“It’s difficult to understand why we have the states we do except for the fact that we’ve always had them this way,” he said. “I see the discussion of the Electoral College as a proxy for a larger discussion of whether we still need these states and whether the states still serve a purpose. If we decide that we want to get rid of the states’ power in the Electoral College, why keep states at all?” 

“I think states do matter,” he continued. “I think in the American Federal Democracy, a lot of the power of governing is devolved down to the state level, and rightly so. I think you want a lot of the laws that are made and the power of governing to be done by entities that are politically closer to the people.” According to Gendlin, states still serve an important purpose, thus we still need the Electoral College to help decide who becomes the president. 

However, Gendlin is not entirely opposed to tweaking the Electoral College. It is part of the Constitution and will be then hard to change, and Gendlin does not recommend completely dismantling it, but he does note some interesting ideas for adapting the Electoral College to modern America. 

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact proposes that some states in the Electoral College band together and always vote in accordance with the national popular vote. Gendlin stated it could be considered unconstitutional for the people to dictate how elected officials vote. According to him, it would also nullify the votes of citizens within the state that went against the majority. 

Dr. Bridget Jeffery, a political science professor at Edinboro, spoke next. She noted the elitist ideology of the framers and the many differences in technology between their reality and ours. Jeffery also spoke of how public officials, state-party representatives, and other party-affiliated individuals become electors on the electoral college. 

“Those who give a lot of money to major parties are more likely to become electors,” she said. The reason for this? Electors are chosen by state party chair-people, not by the people. 

Jeffery posed several questions regarding the implications of this fact: when electors are voting, who are they representing? The people of their state, or their party? There is record of electors who do not follow the popular vote of their state. In fact, some electors defect such that they cast votes for people who are not on the ballot. Jeffrey mentioned a Washington Supreme Court ruling that electors must follow the popular vote. Contrarily, a Colorado appellate court ruled that electors can exercise their vote without influence by the popular vote. The U.S. Supreme Court has not taken such a case, so individual states are free to draw their own conclusions about what makes an appropriate electoral vote.

Jeffery also noted that several hundred amendments and changes to the Electoral College have been proposed, yet none have gained enough traction to become policy. Addressing The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Jeffrey explained that the compact allows small states that have few electoral votes and are therefore left out of campaign loops and overall governmental policy-making to band together and follow through with the national popular vote even if their states did not vote for the popular candidate. 

According to Gendlin, “90% of the campaigning in 2016 took place in 12 states,” — battleground states, like Pennsylvania. What about the other 38? The compact, theoretically, is a way for some of them to get around the Electoral College without amending the constitution, though opponents think it will actually leave smaller states weakened. Lasher implied the compact would be a mistake, citing the fact that corruption in government is significantly lower now than in the past. In his view, controlling the electoral vote is a slippery slope to unconstitutionality.

The panel took several questions from the audience after giving their comments. 

The young man who started the questioning off asked their thoughts on the fact that the states who currently benefit the most from the Electoral College (due to lower populations) are disproportionately white. 

Lasher and Gendlin called this racial inequality an unfortunate byproduct of the cultural differences between the conception of the Constitution and now. They explained that this inequality is perpetuated by the migration pattern of minorities over the last couple centuries. Gendlin admitted that the “entire constitutional structure was created by white men for white men.” He agreed with Lasher that it is an “accident of the system” with a geographical basis. Both men asserted, “we don’t have an answer.” Lasher summed it up with, “We are all Americans.”

Other questioners asked panelists their personal opinions on some topics mentioned earlier in the discussion, such as the Washington Supreme Court decision, and to clarify certain points. 

A live stream of the panel is available on Edinboro University’s Facebook page, or you can watch it below.

Additional Photos:

Brian Lasher (left), A.P. History teacher at Collegiate Academy in Erie, and EU's Dr. Gerry Gendlin (right) discuss the function of the Electoral College. | Photo: Shaddai Crosby Brian Lasher speaks at the first uncomfortable conversation of the year. | Photo: Shaddai Crosby

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