Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About The Electoral College Steve Inskeep talks to commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts about the electoral college — and why she thinks its existence remains valuable.

Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About The Electoral College

Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About The Electoral College

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Steve Inskeep talks to commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts about the electoral college — and why she thinks its existence remains valuable.


Five days from now, members of the Electoral College gather - 538 people in state capitals across this country. They vote for president. If everything goes as planned, Donald Trump will win, but some electors say they're reluctant to vote that way. A few have requested intelligence briefings on Russian interference in the election before they vote, which has intensified questions about what the Electoral College is and how it's supposed to work. Let's ask Cokie. That's a regular feature here on Wednesday mornings. Cokie Roberts answers our questions about how the government works, how politics work. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. And we've gotten a lot of questions about the Electoral College, as I have throughout this campaign season.

INSKEEP: Absolutely. Let's listen to one of them.


DEBORAH ALSTEAD: My name is Deborah Alstead (ph). I live in Marquette, Mich. And my question is, please explain the reason for the Electoral College. In the past 16 years, two presidents have been elected by the Electoral College who actually lost the popular vote. To me, this does not seem to be a representative democracy in which each person's vote is equally important.

INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by more than 2.5 million, so what's going on here, and where did this come from, Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, the founders created the Electoral College in the Constitution of the United States, but it was not easy. There were four propositions for how to elect president. One was popular vote, but the founders did not much believe in that. One was by Congress. One was by state governors, one by state legislatures. And finally, they came up with this system of the number of senators plus the number of representatives from each state. It was presented by the Committee on Postponed Matters because...


INSKEEP: As part of the constitutional debates, OK.

ROBERTS: ...Because it took a while, so nobody could really agree on anything. This was what they came up with.

INSKEEP: But let's understand what the original idea was. The states were considered sovereign, in a way, and so each state would send a delegation of eminent people who would think really hard about this and make a decision, right?

ROBERTS: In fact, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that it was not perfect, but that it was excellent.

INSKEEP: Was it supposed to be at the beginning that the electors would follow a popular vote in each state?

ROBERTS: Electors, by and large, were appointed by state legislatures. Keep in mind, Steve, so were senators. You know, we didn't go to the popular election of senators until the 20th century. And, in fact, when people say that it doesn't seem very democratic to have an Electoral College, neither is the Senate democratic. The Senate is two from each state, regardless of the size of the state. So the - the founders were trying to balance all kinds of things in this complicated business of establishing a country that was based essentially on the consent of the governed, but the governed who were allowing other people to make those decisions.

INSKEEP: And a reminder that the Supreme Court, in recent generations, has endorsed this principle of one person, one vote. But, of course, that's other than the provisions in the Constitution...

ROBERTS: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Where it doesn't count.

ROBERTS: That's right.

INSKEEP: And this is one of them where your vote is not necessarily equal. So that leads to another question from our audience.


CALYSSA HYMAN: My name is Calyssa Hyman (ph), and I live in Covington, La., outside New Orleans. And I would like to ask Cokie, what will it take to get rid of the Electoral College?

ROBERTS: I know Covington well. I'll tell you, the last time there was a big effort to get rid of the Electoral College was in 1969, when the House of Representatives actually did pass a resolution to abolish the Electoral College. It failed in the Senate. It was after very close elections of 1960 and 1968. One of the main proponents of getting rid of the Electoral College - and I've gone back and looked at the transcripts - was my father, Hale Boggs, who was majority whip at the time. I have to tell you, I think he was wrong.

INSKEEP: You think the Electoral College should stay? It's OK?

ROBERTS: I think that it has a very important role in terms of protecting minorities. The founders thought about small states. Keep in mind, they were always against the tyranny of the majority.

INSKEEP: We're not talking about racial minorities here. We're talking about...

ROBERTS: Yes, I'm talking about racial minorities here.

INSKEEP: Oh, go on. Go on. OK.

ROBERTS: So you look at the African-American vote nationwide, it's 12 percent. But in certain states, it makes all the difference. And so, for instance, in Barack Obama's 2012 election, it was the African-American vote in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan that put him over the top. The same with the Hispanic vote - nationwide, it was 11 percent. But in Colorado, Nevada, it makes all the difference. And it's beginning to turn places like Arizona and Texas. So it has the effect of giving minority voices a much louder voice than they would have in a national election...

INSKEEP: Some people...

ROBERTS: ...Which would be, by the way, run in the media and run on the coast. And we would not have heard in this election the voices of the people who felt so disenfranchised in the Midwest.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much. Commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. The feature is called Ask Cokie. She's joining us Wednesdays to answer your questions. You can tweet us at MORNING EDITION with the hashtag #askcokie or join in the conversation on Snapchat. Snap us at NPR.

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