(a note to Idaho State University’s Modern US History course)
Ever have the feeling that we are living through history? I’m sure feeling that this morning. Some of you might be having an unusually stressful week; some of you might not be following the news too closely. That’s alright, but I figured I’d provide a little bit of context to understand what’s going on in our country this week. Am I awake enough to do this? Who knows. Buckle up.
First of all, the Electoral College
What’s that, you ask? The Electoral College (EC) is the system we use for electing presidents in this country. It allots a certain number of electoral votes, based on population, to each state. In most states, if the state’s voters cast more than 50% of their votes for Candidate A, all of the state’s electoral votes go to Candidate A. In Idaho last night, President Trump won about 64% of people’s ballots, so all of Idaho’s four electoral college votes go to him. In states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Pennsylvania right now, the margin is not clear enough to know which candidate those states will “go for.” Those states all have a big population, so there are a lot of electoral college votes still in play. Whichever candidate gets 270 electoral votes will win. (Also, some of this information might have changed by the time you are reading this).
The Electoral College is responsible for the red/blue maps that will be all over the news this week. I’ve also used a few of these maps in various lectures this semester. They are helpful for understanding the presidential elections process, but only up to a point. When one state is labeled blue or red, it obscures the fine-grain makeup of the electorate (citizens/voters). Anyway, if you’d like a better (and animated!) explanation of the EC, Ted has a good one.
The Popular Vote
If you’ve read the above correctly, you may be thinking “what about one person, one vote?” Well, in presidential elections anyway, that’s not how our system works. We do use direct elections for lots of other parts of our governing system, so take heart — your vote absolutely matters! Because of how EC votes are distributed and cast, there can be a disparity between the presidential winner (according to the EC) and the popular vote (total number of votes cast nationally). This has happened in two of our recent elections (2000 and 2016), when the candidate who won actually lost the popular vote. The EC can also yield other funky results, like in 1992 and 1996, when President Clinton won without 50% of the popular vote.
One of the reasons that the election decision is being delayed is that we saw a record number of early voting ballots and mail-in ballots this year (for obvious reasons). Each state has different rules about how and when those ballots are counted. In some states, those ballots weren’t opened until sometime yesterday. It’s going to take some time for the counts to get up to speed, especially in states that are very close.
“Calling States,” “Going For,” and “Elected”
One final thing to understand about presidential elections is how we figure out who is winning. Contrary to popular belief, election officials are not the ones “calling” states this week. When a state is called for one candidate, that is a decision that is made by news agencies based on complex data collection (AP has a great explainer here). This can sometimes cause discrepancies and confusion. In the 2000 election, this was all over the place and contributed to the conflict that followed Election Day. In the years since, news networks have gotten much more careful about when they call a state, or the election, but it’s not yet perfect. At one point last night, Fox called Arizona for Biden, while other news agencies have held off (as of this morning, AZ is still a question mark).
It won’t be for several more weeks that each state’s election officials certify the state’s tallies, meaning double check and finalize the results. Then, in December, the Electoral College will meet (yes, presidential electors are real people — usually party appointees) to cast their votes. These electors traditionally vote based on their state’s results, but are not technically bound to do so. A “faithless elector” may vote against the state’s results. This was a concern in the 2016 election, and people might raise this concern again this year (nb: this almost certainly won’t happen, but if it comes up, now you’ll know). Although we don’t treat it this way in our popular discussions, it’s only after the EC meets and casts votes that a president is actually elected.
Because we might be waiting for a few days (hopefully not longer) for the agreed-upon results of this election, there will be a lot of time for bad information to get out there. Election officials across the country have reported no election fraud or malfeasance this year (see, among others, here). But the longer the wait goes on, the more opportunity there is for bad actors to stoke fear that the system isn’t working correctly, or that it is being tampered with. I don’t know what we will see exactly, but I implore you, as thoughtful students of history: examine evidence and try to assess bias. What basis (evidence) is there for claims of fraud? What is the speaker or writer’s intent? Do we trust the speaker or writer?
My best advice here is to be patient. Our (representative) democracy demands accuracy over expedience.
No matter what happens, this will be a historic election. And you get to live through it (I know it feels like a burden sometimes). But hopefully, maybe, possibly, you’ll be able to make some connections to things we’ve studied in this course. Because what’s happening now, in 2020, is very much a product of our recent history.
As always, I’ll be here if you’d like to talk!