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Electoral College 101: How it works. Why we're stuck with it.

Why is 270 the magic number on Election Day? Because it's the number of Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. A look at the messy system the Founding Fathers bequeathed us.

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Previous to this, state governors produce a “Certificate of Ascertainment” for Washington, which lists all the presidential candidates and their electors, who won, and so forth. We’d go further into this whole fascinating paperwork thing except we’d like some readers still awake at the end. If you want to know more you can read about it here.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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• Point five is that technically speaking the election of the president of the United States takes place during a joint session of Congress on January 6th following Election Day. That’s when members of the House and Senate meet in the House chamber to preside over the counting of electors’ votes, which apparently take a long time to get to DC.

“The Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results of the vote. The President of the Senate then declares which persons, if any, have been elected President and Vice President of the United States,” concludes a National Archives summary of the process.

“If any?” Oy vey. We’d forgotten – a 269 to 269 tie throws the whole thing into the House of Representatives. That’s a subject for another story.

• Finally, our sixth and last point is that we got into this mess – excuse me, system – because the Founding Fathers faced a difficult and delicate task in establishing the way the infant US would pick its executive leader.

Think what it was like back in 1787. A group of 13 states, some small, some large, some slave, some free, was attempting to put together a process which satisfied them all. Plus there was no Google Maps, so travel between the ex-colonies was difficult and prone to wrong turns.

Many delegates to the constitutional convention just wanted the new president to be picked by Congress. But others were worried that this would lead to intrigue, and that the new leader would possibly feel beholden to those who chose him. (Yes, at the time they thought political parties, or “faction,” to be poisonous. Ha! If they saw how smoothly the president and Congress work together today to avoid doing anything about the looming “fiscal cliff” they’d realize their mistake.)

A core group feared direct democracy. The result was the Electoral College, a process which at the time seemed to stand between a one-person-one-vote approach and a congressional choice model.

The system’s details have changed over the years. At first, the electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, with the first place finisher winning the top spot, and the second place finisher gaining the vice-presidency. After a few tries this was changed so that the electors cast a ballot for a two-person ticket.

(Here’s an interesting parlor game: try to think of the most poisonous Prez/VP pairing you can come up with under the old rules. My best try is President Al Gore and Vice President Dick Cheney.)

Today the system serves to balance the power of big and small states while spreading political power around the regions. At least a bit. Especially if you live in Ohio.


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