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Why the Electoral College Really Matters In this Election

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The latest national polls show President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in a virtual dead heat. A good time to ask the question--do some votes count more than others? ideastream's Michele Kanu put some voters to the test and has our mini civics lesson.

Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Standing outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections I conducted a little quiz. I asked people who had just cast early ballots - "Who elects the President?"

Dibello: "Umm, the people of this country, by states, separated by state…"

Gajdos: "Well the people do…"

Velicona: "Essentially, the people…"

Hope: "The citizens of the United States…"

Hope: "I know we vote…."

Hudson-Bey: "Well honestly we the people are supposed to elect the president."

Our unlucky quiz contestants were: Ross Dibello, Richard Gajdos, Fran Velicona, Joe Hope, Willie Hope, and Edward Hudson-Bey. When I told them to guess again, most got closer, and Saba Valadkhan got it right.

Veladkhan: "Well, the Electoral College does, basically."

Veladkhan also had a good understanding of how it works.

Veladkhan: "The way that I understand it is that for each state, there's a certain number of Electoral College members, supposedly depending on the population of the state, but that dates from a long time ago. And the popular vote of each state determines how the entire Electoral College vote is determined."

In fact, each state has a slate of Democratic and Republican electors that's equal to the number of representatives and senators they have in Congress, including three from Washington, D.C. So, these 538 "electors" go to college. Actually, the "college" is more of a process than a place. It's these votes that count the most. A candidate has to get 270 electoral votes to clinch the election.

But why does the Electoral College even exist in the first place?

For the answer to this we went to a teacher. Joe White, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University.

White: "We have an Electoral College because the people who wrote the Constitution did not believe in direct democracy, and they thought that the president should be chosen by a selection of eminent and responsible people from different states rather than any kind of direct popular election."

In nearly all states, electors are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. So the candidate who wins the most popular votes, the ones you and I cast, wins the state.

Now, here's the most interesting thing about the process.

Most of the time, the candidate who gets the most popular votes when totaled up across the nation - wins the Electoral College too and becomes President. But, there have been a few instances-and one in recent memory-where the candidate who got the most citizen votes lost. Think, Al Gore in 2000. It was the other guy who won.

White: "His name would be George W. Bush."

It's happened two other times too.

White: "You have this system where instead of a popular vote electing the president, the states essentially each have their own elections. And those elections choose the electors and the president is actually chosen by the total votes in the electoral college."

More than 700 attempts have been made to abolish the Electoral College system and install a system where the national popular vote is all that counts. All have failed to muster the necessary two-thirds majority of Congress and an agreement from 75 percent of states to amend the Constitution.

So, here we are again with lots of overwhelmingly blue states and overwhelmingly red states and a tight race in just a few swing states like Ohio. Will the Electoral College be on the same page as the voters?

White: "There's some chance we're going to face this question this time. It's certainly quite possible that the same person will win the popular vote and the Electoral College, more likely than not, but there's a reasonable chance it'll be different just like it was in 2000."

Or, the race between President Obama and Governor Romney could end in a tie in the Electoral College. There is a provision for what happens then, but that's enough civics for today.

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