"Our marriage is like the Electoral College," says the narrator in "Marooned," a Garrison Keillor short story. "It works OK if you don't think about it."
At noon Monday, I will be one of those thinking about the Electoral College, as I have the privilege of being one of Connecticut's seven Presidential Electors — one of 538 across the nation — who will finally, officially bring the 2012 campaign to an end.
More specifically I may be thinking about Samuel Miles, a Pennsylvanian who in 1796 ran as a Federalist promising to vote for John Adams but who instead cast his ballot for Thomas Jefferson. It made no difference in the outcome but it enraged the Federalist loyalists, one of whom wrote, "Do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me … the fittest man for president of the United States? No, I choose him to ACT, not to THINK." Before becoming a professor I was often called upon act, not to think. I generally lived up to the expectation and will do so again tomorrow.
The "thinking" part, for me, actually occurred several months ago when, as a committed Obama-Biden supporter, I asked the Connecticut Democratic Party to put me on the elector slate. I sometimes lecture on the Electoral College, I said, and this would give me a good anecdote. More important, I promised that "no bribes, no torture, nothing — would ever induce me to do anything as an elector other than vote for the Democratic candidates." Apparently that clinched it.
Over the last 224 years about 80 electors haven't been faithful to their pledge. Most cases came in the early years of the republic, but more recently it's become something of a tradition that one elector breaks his commitment each election. The reasons run from ideology to idiosyncrasy: The faithless included segregationist Southerners who couldn't abide Democratic nominees' pro-civil rights stands, Republican conservatives who thought Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford were too liberal, a 1988 West Virginia Democrat who thought Lloyd Bentsen would be a better president than Michael Dukakis, and a D.C. Democrat who abstained in 2000 to protest the district's lack of a vote in Congress. In 2004, a Minnesotan accidentally voted for John Edwards for president instead of John Kerry.
Connecticut law forbids any of us seven from doing that. An elector here must "cast his ballots for the candidates under whose name he ran on the official election ballot." Penalties for non-compliance are not spelled out. It's worth noting that when the General Assembly abolished the death penalty there was no exception made for faithless electors, though some might think there should have been.
Almost from the start there have been calls for the abolition of the Electoral College, usually to have it replaced by direct popular vote. A recent proposal called the "National Popular Vote Compact" would achieve this goal. Still, because this last election wasn't as close as many thought it would be, it's likely that Electoral College reform won't be near the top of the national agenda any time soon.
The late Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee once called the Electoral College "a loaded pistol pointed at our system of government." It's been noted in recent years that the Electoral College makes candidates focus all their time on a few swing states (Connecticut rarely among them), that it gives disproportionate influence to small states, and that it leads candidates to pander to special interests who can affect the outcome in large states. All of this is demonstrably true and cause for concern.
Still, this is the system we've got and it's likely the one that will continue. Despite its faults, it's produced some very good presidents (and, admittedly, a few clunkers). Moreover, it's existed concurrent with one of the world's most stable and generally — recent times notwithstanding — effective governments. And it gives those of us who teach in this area interesting stories to tell.
For all that, I will be honored to be part of the Electoral College system. I will proudly cast my vote for the candidates I pledged to vote for many months ago, and for whom more than 900,000 Connecticut voters expressed support in November.
Ron Schurin is an associate professor in residence in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.