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Electoral College system understood by few

Think you're voting for president? Think again

NEW YORK (CNN) -- If you think you are going to cast a vote for one of the presidential candidates, think again -- and look again at the small print on the ballot of that state.

Election graphic
 

We are, lest we forget, voting for an elector, and they will elect the president. Luther Mook, for instance, will do the electing if George W. Bush wins in New York state.

"The electoral college has been here since the beginning of our country. People are still unfamiliar with it," he said.

Martin Connor will cast his electoral vote if Al Gore wins New York state. "It's not a secret vote, really ... You literally line up, as the roll is called, and drop the paper ballot into the ballot box for president," he said.

The 538 electors are spread among states according to the number of each state's representatives and senators in Washington. Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral vote according to the results in each congressional district, but everywhere else, it's winner-take-all.

 VIDEO
CNN's Garrick Utley explains the intricacies of the Electoral College

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How did we get this system?

"We're in a republic, not a democracy. The founders were very careful to say they were worried about allowing people to directly elect representatives," said Dr. David Epstein, a political science professor at Columbia University.

When the framers of the Constitution debated how to elect a president, there were no political parties, no national campaigns, and there was concern that regional candidates would splinter a popular vote for president and trigger weak chief executives.

But there were potential faults in the system. The last time that was evident was in 1888, when Grover Cleveland, a Democrat running for re-election, narrowly won the popular vote. But Benjamin Harrison won more electoral votes by winning -- by slight margins -- in a number of key states.

"If we had that again, where somebody won the election without winning the popular vote, the system would be changed in an instant," said Epstein.

One reason it has not been changed yet is that the Electoral College favors the interests of the two dominant parties. In 1992, Ross Perot won 19 percent of the people's votes and zero electoral college votes.

If that offers less choice for voters, it does provide for a stable and predictable two-party system that forces Republicans and Democrats to broaden their appeal by avoiding more extreme positions. It also forces candidates to conduct 51 campaigns -- one in each state and the District of Columbia.

And so, the real presidential election will take place on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December, as 538 men and women -- most of whom are totally unknown to the American public -- gather in their respective state capitals and cast their ballots. Is there a chance that some might shift their votes? It has happened -- nine times -- but it has never affected the outcome of an election, which is announced in Congress in early January.

And this January, there will be someone new taking the oath of office, elected for the people, by the people -- and the 538 members of the Electoral College.

 



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Thursday, November 2, 2000


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