Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Antioch Middle School's Questions

Calculating the Electoral College at Antioch Middle 
Wow - this is fantastic! I just had the Student Council of Antioch Middle School in the glorious city of Nashville in the equally glorious state of Tennessee write me some superb questions on behalf of their constituents. I have a grin the size of the might Tennessee River.

Which is sizable.

Okay, first question from Ferdos, Representative of the 5th Grade.

Who counts the votes?

Ah, a technical question, and a difficult one! Well, Rep. Ferdos, in each electoral district it is done a little differently.  You see, different districts have different ways of taking votes - some do it using paper which folks mark on, others do it with punch cards (where you use a little, sharp implement to poke holes in the card, indicating your vote), and others use electronic voting booths that record votes onto discs or magnetic tape of some type. Regardless, as voting ends the votes are sealed by an official (usually known as an election judge) and taken by police (who are sworn and maintain the same evidenciary level as for a criminal investigation) to a central location for a district where, using some method or the other (depending on the way people voted in that district), they are counted by certified election officials (chosen in different ways in different districts and states).  Often there are observers there, making sure that no one is breaking the law by discarding or miscounting votes.  Finally, once the votes are tallied the results are sent to the capital of the state and to the media then are resealed (in case a recount is necessary).  In the case of presidential elections , the state legislature then appoints, based on these votes, electors to the Electoral College who will vote for president, then seal their votes AGAIN and send them to Congress in Washington, DC.  The governor of the state in question, by the way, sends a certificate saying the vote was done properly called a Certificate of Ascertainment.  Congress meets in joint session (meaning both the members of the House of Representatives are there and the members of the Senate) and the votes are publicly counted by the Vice-President who is also the President of the Senate.  Assuming one candidate gets the majority of the electoral votes, that person becomes the president!

Well done!  Moving on then, to a second question, this one submitted by Marshall, Representative of the 6th Grade and his question:

Why should people vote?

Jeepers, Marshall - you cut to the quick!.  This one is a philosophical question that I could spend hours and hours on - and I have! That said, I'll give you a relatively short response, but if you want to read more in detail you can see an earlier post I wrote on just this subject:
(1) Because there is always a chance, small but real, that your vote will affect the outcome of the election;
(2) Because it is the morally right thing to do - a lot of men and women have worked very hard, some of them fighting, some of them dying - to both give us the right to choose our leaders and to preserve this right when tyrants have sought to take it from us.  I'd say we owe it to them to be responsible members of our republic; and
(3) Because we are privileged enough to be able to.  For most of the history of humanity, and in virtually all nations on this planet, most people have had no political rights.  They were subjects. But we here in the United States, as well as the folk of a few other nations historically and today, are truly citizens - we have the ability to change our government through voting, through running for office, and through serving on juries. That is the most amazing type of luxury and only a fool passes up the rare and beautiful that is ALSO good.
Nifty.  Moving on, let's check out our third question - this one from Merna, the Representative of the 7th Grade:
Will things change a lot in our country when we elect a new president today? Do checks and balances do anything to stop the president from having all the power?
Oh Merna - you're tricky - two questions! Nonetheless, let me combine them.

Some things will change, Merna, but others will not.  You see our government has, which I'm guessing you know all about, and also Russian nesting dolls, stacked up inside of one another and affecting each other.  Interesting, right?  Check this out.  The smallest doll is the Constitution - it is the "basic law" - the law which is hardest to change and the law which no other law can contradict.  The legislative branch is wrapped around that - it writes laws which determine how the government is supposed to do what it is told to do in the Constitution - it elaborates, in other words, on the constitutional law.  The Executive branch is the third doll - it exists to fill in the details of the laws given to it by the legislative branch through "orders" - literally the president tells the bureaucracy how to interpret the laws written by Congress.  You may be noticing something, by the way - the trend is for the law to get more more and more complicated and easier to change as the doll gets bigger.  Next we have the bureaucracy which adds to the law by writing detailed regulations that obey the Constitution, the Congress, and the President.  Finally we have the last and biggest doll, the judiciary, which goes back and checks to make sure no one is violating any laws from any level - and this includes bigger dolls violating the rules laid down by smaller dolls.

So, when you ask me, will changing the president change the country, I have to say, somewhat.  The president certainly can make it harder (or easier) for Congress to pass laws, and can interpret laws differently.  But the president still has to obey the Constitution and the Judiciary when it tells him or her to obey the Constitution or Congress.  So somethings surely will change, but these will be details - expect America to be America tomorrow, no matter who wins or loses.

Finally, we have Jazmin, Representative of the 8th Grade - our most senior legislator.  The Madam Representative asks:
Why is the Electoral College so important today? Is it still important in present time?
A good one, and one that a lot of smart people ask everyday.

Imagine, if you will, that you and everyone at your school were going to a movie.  There were a lot of you, and you had decided everyone had to go to the same movie.  There are a lot of different ways you could decide what movie to go to.  You might just vote and decide whatever movie gets the most votes, what we call a plurality, wins.  You might also decide that you'll let every class vote on a movie, letting each class get a certain number of votes in proportion to how many kids were in each class.  Then, whichever movie won within a class all of those second round of votes went to that.  Whichever movie got the most votes in the second round, well, everyone would go see that movie.

Now, why would anyone choose such a complicated way of doing things?  Ultimately, it is so that the smallest classes still matter.  If we imagine each class has different preferences (some like comedies, others horror movies), then we could imagine them saying, "well, I don't want to see that particular comedy as much as another comedy, but I'd rather see it than any horror movie."  Well, if their class is little, they just don't matter - they'll split their vote and lose every time - it is horror movies forever!  On the other hand, if they pool their votes, even though their class is little compared to some, their vote still is much more likely to matter.  Ah-ha!

So, why is the Electoral College important?  Among other reasons, it gives little states like North Dakota and West Virginia the chance to matter.  They don't always matter, but everyone at least has to regard them as mattering just in case - which means they matter. Weird, eh?

The problem is, of course, that sometimes the Electoral College votes differently from the population as a whole.  Right now we feel like that is worth it, a cost to make sure the small states matter.  Someday that might change, but that'll involve a cost of its own.

Well, thank-you all for the wonderful questions - I hope you have a wonderful Election Day!