It's time for some American Democracy 101. Every election cycle, it frustrates me to no end that most news outlets spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the latest polls without explaining the significance those polls actually have on the outcome of a presidential election that isn't truly decided by the voters. My Halloween wish this year was for someone to explain the electoral college to me, and Twin Cities journalist Frank Bures has obliged*.
This piece has actually been around since 2000, but I think it's a nice explanation of what the electoral college is, where it comes from, and why it's going to matter to you tonight.
The only votes that count in this election will be cast in mid-December by the 538 members of the electoral college. That's who you and I will vote for on November 7: electors for Bush or electors for Gore, and their votes are the currency of presidential politics. Each state gets as many electors as it has representatives and senators. In all but two states, the winning party takes all the state's electoral votes.
...At first, in several states, there was no popular presidential vote. For decades after 1787, in states like Delaware, New York, and Georgia, the legislatures chose the electors. In South Carolina, there was no popular vote for the chief executive until 1860. But today, party loyalty prevents electors from acting as the free agents envisioned by the founders. In 99% of the cases, the electoral vote is a formality.
...Electors tend to be either ordinary people—teachers, carpenters, middle managers, retirees, and lawyers' or party activists sent to the state capital for half an hour of raw power. Some, like Marc Abrams, a 1996 Oregon elector I talked to in the course of researching this article" are blasé about choosing the most powerful man on earth. They voted in a room in the Capitol basement. It took about twenty minutes, and hardly anyone noticed they were there. When I asked Abrams how it felt, he said, "It was sorta cool. "
*Of course, I also wished for all the children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. And for a million dollars to be placed, in my name, in a Swiss bank account.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.