Yes, Cheryl, your vote still counts

Part 1: The Electoral College Blues
By Daniel Dunkle | Jan 05, 2017

We recently received the following letter from Randall S. Hocking of Rockland:

"I am writing to you in hopes you can answer a touchy question in your paper, The Courier-Gazette. My wife, Cheryl, when we first met, was a staunch non-voter, but I was. I after a while convinced her that her vote counts and she began to vote regularly. This year we waited in line for about an hour to vote for Hillary Clinton. After Donald Trump was voted into office, she is now questioning the validity of her vote. Hillary Clinton did in fact win the popular vote, but not the Electoral College.

"My wife is very disillusioned by this and is saying that people were still voting when Donald Trump was declared the president-elect and made his speech and she may never vote again.

"Through your paper, could you write an article convincing voters that their individual votes do in fact count? I do appreciate your time and consideration on this matter and I look forward to your answer on this touchy subject."

Thank you, Randall, for your letter.

"Does my vote matter?" is a question that cuts straight to the heart of our national identity. After doing some research, I realized that this was too big a topic to tackle completely in one column, so this week I'll focus on what happened in November and the debate over the Electoral College. Next week, I'll offer some wisdom from our lawmakers and try to do some convincing.

The first thing I would tell Cheryl is, you're not alone.

"More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than any other losing presidential candidate in U.S. history," CNN reported Dec. 22. "The Democrat outpaced President-elect Donald Trump by almost 2.9 million votes..." As you pointed out, she won the popular vote, but not the election.

This is because we have what is called the Electoral College, which we only use when electing presidents.

In Maine, when you cast your vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, you really are voting for the presidential electors nominated by that candidate's party. Essentially, the presidential candidates are fighting it out for victory in each state. The winner of the state takes all its electoral votes, with two exceptions. Those are the votes that actually elect the president.

Larger states have more electoral votes than smaller ones. California has 55 electoral votes, New York has 29 and Delaware has 3.

Maine is one of only two states that split their electoral votes, giving two votes to whoever wins the state, and the rest to whoever wins in each congressional district. That's why, on Dec. 19, Maine's electors cast three votes for Clinton and 1 for Trump, because he won Maine's Second Congressional District, up north above what Howie Carr calls "the Volvo line."

To be honest, I find this confusing, but I found a great Washington Post piece that explains it: washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/how-the-electoral-college-works/

So your vote did count. Your vote contributed to the three electoral votes that Clinton won in Maine.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap was kind enough to write me a response to your question, which I will get into more fully in next week's column. He absolutely believes your vote counts and that you have a duty to vote, but acknowledges, "Maine is a small state with only those four (electoral) votes out of 538 total nationally, so even though your vote counts via the electors, our choices as a state do not make a big impact on the final national outcome."

Clinton lost three key states that would have given her the electoral votes she needed: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If you live in one of those states, your vote really made a difference in 2016.

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore lost Florida by the slimmest of margins, and he needed the state's electoral votes to win. If you were a voter in Florida, your vote really mattered that year.

So why do we have this Electoral College?

"The presidential race is governed by the Electoral College provision in the U.S. Constitution that seeks to give states more equal representation in that election process," Dunlap said.

Some argue it levels the playing field between small-town America and larger city centers. A popular vote would be determined by people in cities on the east and west coasts, and the whole middle of the country would be outvoted, they argue.

This system was started in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. At the time, they were considering "several methods of electing the president, including selection by Congress, by the governors of the states, by the state legislatures, by a special group of members of Congress chosen by lot, and by direct popular election," according to History.com, which describes the intention of the Electoral College in terms similar to those used by Dunlap.

In a Dec. 19 editorial, the New York Times argued it is time to abolish the Electoral College, calling it "a living symbol of America’s original sin. When slavery was the law of the land, a direct popular vote would have disadvantaged the Southern states, with their large disenfranchised populations."

Rep. Owen Casas, I-Rockport, called it "a fossil from the founders."

Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, agreed with the Times, saying the Electoral College was there to protect the rights and property of white, male landowners.

The New York Times also argues the current system gives more weight to voters in smaller states. "...Why should the votes of Americans in California or New York count for less than those in Idaho or Texas? A direct popular vote would treat all Americans equally, no matter where they live..."

An effort is under way to get rid of the Electoral College. Retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California filed legislation to abolish it, but doesn't have the juice to push through a constitutional amendment.

"Some of my colleagues and I have put in a bill called the National Popular Vote, which would align electoral votes with the popular vote and solve this issue," said Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have already passed this legislation in an agreement, known as the National Popular Vote interstate compact, according to the New York Times.

Cheryl also wanted to know why votes were still being counted after the winner had been announced. This is always somewhat confusing. The initial results are released election night. Popular votes continue to be counted and official numbers come in later, but they are usually close enough to the initial reporting. The electors don't actually cast their votes until December. This year there was a push to influence the electors, but that did not change the outcome. It did manage to drag out the pain, though.

This is only the fifth time in U.S. history that the presidential candidate who won the White House lost the popular vote. In each instance where the Electoral College trumped the popular vote, a Democrat was the loser, according to Pew Research Center.

The argument that the Electoral College keeps large population centers from dominating elections does not convince me. First, that assumes every New Yorker or every Californian is voting the same way, forming a block. In addition, the Electoral College seems merely to have shifted which states have the most sway from the coasts to the "battleground states." If it really served any purpose, we would use a similar system to elect governors and other officials.

In the next column, I will give more space to the many people I asked about this issue, and hopefully convince Cheryl that her vote absolutely counts.

Thanks again for the letter. I love to hear from readers, so contact me with your questions, comments, observations and memories from days gone by in the Rockland area. Email me at ddunkle@villagesoup.com or snail mail letters to the Editor, 91 Camden St., Ste. 403, Rockland, ME 04841.

Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and two cats. Follow him on Twitter @DanDunkle.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Eric Thurston | Jan 12, 2017 13:11

Nice article, Dan. The electoral college does give voters in smaller states a bigger voice than voters in larger states. But that is also how our government works. The House of Representatives gives individuals somewhat equal voices but the Senate gives states equal voices independent of population. Obviously the smaller states have a much greater voice in the Senate. I believe most think this is a good system. I do like the idea of the National Popular Vote. Why should each state determine how they split their electoral votes in a national election?



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