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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Electoral College, whose members, and not the popular vote, ultimately decide who wins the U.S. presidency, won’t keep 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Susan Moyer from casting a ballot in November.

“I’m going to vote. We’re American and [voting is] something we have an opportunity to do that a lot of people don’t,” said the young Marine stationed at Quantico, Va. “And I’m a female. That’s another reason why I want to vote. People fought a lot for a female’s right to vote, and a lot of women in other countries don’t get to, and I’m not going to give up my right to vote because of the Electoral College.”

And she knows what it is.

Sort of.

“Yeah, I’m a little confused about it. I know a lot of people are. And a lot of people say they won’t vote because they think their vote doesn’t matter. And I don’t understand how the person the nation voted for can be different than who becomes president,” she said, referring to the 2000 election in which the tallied popular vote favored former Vice President Al Gore but the Electoral College count put President Bush in office.

The Electoral College is a group of people, called electors, picked by each state who officially elect the president and vice president. The number of electors equals the number of representatives in both houses of Congress. The winner is the candidate who receives a majority, at least 270, of the 538 Electoral College votes; 535 for each of the states and three for the District of Columbia.

Electors are chosen at state conventions or can be rewarded for a job well done by political party leaders, said Rob Alexander, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.

Each state political party has the same number of electors. In Virginia, for example, Republicans pick 13 people, Democrats pick another 13, and even Ralph Nader’s camp has 13 representatives in the event he wins the popular vote, Alexander said.

The political party of the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state sends its electors to the state house in December to cast the actual votes that will elect the next president.

And that’s why it’s important for average citizens to go to the polls, Alexander explained.

There are, however, the occasional “faithless electors,” or those who fail to vote for the candidate to whom they pledged support, Alexander said. While there is no Constitutional provision to ensure an elector votes as they pledged, some states do have laws to penalize a faithless elector, though the laws never have been enforced, Alexander said.

For example, in 2000 a faithless elector in Washington, D.C., illegally abstained instead of voting for Gore as she had pledged, he said. “And nothing was ever done about it.”

The Electoral College, created by the nation’s founding fathers, guarantees each state’s sovereignty in electing the executive branch leader, said Alexander and Professor Christopher Duncan, chairman of political science at the University of Dayton, also in Ohio.

“It also serves a broader agenda,” Duncan said. “We really wouldn’t want a president who only appeals to one particular region of the country.”

One outcome of the process is that it “forces candidates to go out and campaign in places where there aren’t a lot of people. They have to go west, and by west, I don’t mean California. They have to go to Iowa and Ohio.”

Duncan said he hasn’t seen data to suggest the Electoral College dissuades people from going to the polls, “but it makes people angry,” he said, also citing the results of the 2000 presidential race. Some argue it undermines the principle of one person, one vote.

In all states but Maine and Nebraska, it’s “winner take all” in the Electoral College votes. Lawmakers in those two wanted to let electors cast votes mirroring the will of voters in particular districts, Alexander said.

But it serves a key purpose, said voter Army Maj. Lanier Ward, severely injured in June 2003 while serving in Iraq. “Since I find myself defending the right to vote, I find it as a duty of our citizens to take the time to choose our civilian leaders and representatives.

“I still think our founding fathers were right in the way they designed the system,” Ward said. “We often forget we are a federal republic where power is shared between the states and the national government. The Electoral College makes the outcome in each state important.

“If the system wasn’t set up as it is, you would never see campaigning in Iowa, but rather at urban population focus points [such as] California, New York and Florida. Although we don’t base the outcome on the popular vote, the individual citizen’s vote is important to the outcome of each state election.”

Are there problems with the system?

Army Maj. Dave Filer, an Infantry officer and formerly an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point, says it’s worth discussing.

“That is arguable; one might agree that the American public is smart enough — trust in the wisdom of the masses — to make a choice without having a system where state electors do it for them. Although, historically, the electors have pretty much followed the will of the majority of people in the state. I think the argument about ‘faithless electors’ is overblown.

“Interesting to note, however, that we’d have a different president today if we went simply by the majority public vote,” said Filer, assistant director for Joint Strategic Plans and Policy for the Multinational Security Transition Command in Baghdad.

“Question is, should we have a system today that was based on antiquated ideals of aristocracy and distrust for the opinion of the masses? Maybe the American people as a whole are ‘smart enough’ today to know who they want selected for president. Maybe not.”


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