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The Electoral College and how it works

By Todd Whitten, Department Chair

You can listen to this blog post here.

WE the people are going to be hearing a lot about the Electoral College in the coming days, weeks and possibly months, so I thought it would be helpful to do a quick explanation of what this is and how it works so you can impress your friends and family and drop a few facts on Election Night.

The Electoral College exists because the Founders didn’t trust the American people. It is that simple. WE the people are, to their minds, a mob of passion-driven, uneducated, and not-too-bright rabble, and there needs to be a check on our ability to put anyone into the highest offices of the land. Doubt me? In the Constitution, the House of Representatives is the only government body where the people directly elect the members. And they only serve 2 years! Senators were originally selected by the state legislatures (This was undone in April 1913 by the 17th Amendment, so now we vote for them), Supreme Court justices are appointed and confirmed, and the President is elected by the Electoral College. So, yeah, the Founders didn’t trust us all that much.

The Electoral College was instituted to be a brake on the passions of the populace, and is described in three places in the Constitution: Article II, section 1, Paragraph 2; the 12th Amendment; and the 20th Amendment. What follows is a mash up of the info in all three places.

Every state in the union is a member of the Electoral College and thus gets to have Electors. The number of Electors is equal to the total number of officials that the state sends to Congress; every state has 2 Senators, and the House of Representatives is determined by the state’s population, which is counted every 10 years in the Census. Massachusetts has 2 Senators and 9 Members of the House, so our state gets 11 Electors.

There are a total of 538 Electors in the country. The Constitution says that a simple majority of Electoral votes are needed to win, so the magic number to win the office is 270.

WE the people will vote November 3, 2020. The votes by the Electors are cast on December 14, 2020. They are called “Certificates.” Those Certificates are delivered either by hand or by registered US Mail by December 23, 2020, to the President of the Senate or the Congressional Archivist. On January 6, 2021 at 1 pm, a joint session (that’s both Houses of Congress) will be called. The certificates are opened at that time and in that place by the President of the Senate, and the votes are counted in front of all of Congress. When 270 is reached, a winner is declared and counting stops.

The Certificates can be challenged for legitimacy and accuracy. The challenge has to be in writing and signed by one Representative and one Senator. If that happens, the count is suspended, the two Houses return to their chambers, and the objection is debated for up to 2 hours. A vote is taken to uphold or overturn the objection to the Certificate. If both Houses uphold the objection, the Certificates are discarded and the counting resumes. If they disagree, the Certificates stand and the counting resumes. If there is no majority of votes (no candidate gets to 270), then the winner is determined by a vote in the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation gets one vote. The majority winner of that vote becomes President/Vice President. We’ve never done this…

So who gets to be Electors?

Here’s where it gets messy. The Constitution states that “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors…” Yes, that means that each state’s legislature has said “Here’s how to be an Elector.” The only requirement is that Electors can’t be “members of Congress or hold any office of Trust or Profit under the United States.”

So I could be an Elector. You could be an Elector. The state legislature has to determine who can be an Elector. Initially, the writers of the Constitution thought that an Elector should be a person of “Continental Character;” the idea was that it would be someone who is educated and informed about current events, and who would have a sense of the type of leader the country needed. That Elector would then be empowered to vote their conscience for the best choice, regardless of what the popular vote was. Then things started to change.

The big change was the creation of political parties, a rather huge blind spot in the Constitution’s text. As parties rose, most, if not all, the states, ceded their power to appoint electors to the party apparatus. So it became common practice, if not actual law in some cases, that the party whose candidate won the popular vote got to control that state’s Electors. So rather than “Continental Character,” party loyalty became the quality most sought after. The idea behind this is that a party loyalist wouldn’t cast a ballot against their candidate. So if Massachusetts went for a Democrat, the Electors would be Democrats. If it went Republican, the Electors would be Republicans.

In many cases, though, this isn’t enshrined in law, it is just a norm. Constitutionally, state legislatures still have control of Electors and can select them as they see fit.

In some cases as well, there are no penalties for being what’s called a “faithless Elector,” and casting a vote that runs contrary to the popular vote winner. That was, after all, the exact intent of the Founders. Several states have enacted legal penalties for faithless Electors, and in July of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that such penalties are constitutional, and more states are enacting them to bring the Electoral College in line with the popular vote.

All this means that this year it is even less likely than other years we will know who has been elected President. Technically we’ve never known the results of the election on election night; we’ve known what the media’s exit polling and what state’s reporting says the popular vote was. (Side note: We never should have gotten used to the media “calling” a state with 1% of the vote being counted!)

The popular vote has been adhered to by the vast majority of Electors in this country’s history, so in modern history there has never been much reason to doubt the outcome of the counting of Elector’s Certificates in January. In 2000, however, that process was thrown into doubt when the state of Florida’s Electors were in limbo due to a popular vote that was highly contested between Al Gore (D) and George W. Bush (R). Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no longer enough time to continue recounting the popular vote ballots in Florida and give Electors time to vote and deliver the Certificates to Washington DC, and so the ballot counting was suspended and George W. Bush gained control of Florida’s Electors and thus won the White House. (Side note: Again, the national popular vote doesn’t matter at all, it is the popular vote at the state level that matters. So despite Hillary Clinton getting more popular votes overall in 2016, that didn’t impact the number of electors she got. For instance, once she won California, she got their Electors. It didn’t matter if she won California by 1 vote or 10 million votes to the distribution of Electors.) Under the Constitution, though, if Florida couldn’t get its Certificates to Washington DC in time, then they just wouldn’t get counted, and the number to win would drop because there would be fewer Electoral Certificates to count.

During a pandemic where the US Postal Service has had mail sorting machines taken out of service, where states have had to cope with a flood of mail in ballots, where it looks like a record number of people are voting, and where some states are prohibited from counting ballots except within a strict window of time and other states have large windows in which to count, it seems probable that we will have a number of delays in knowing the outcome of the popular vote.

It also is possible (though how probable is uncertain), that some states could step away from their norms surrounding the Electoral College and who gets control of the Electors. If that should happen, it is also possible (though again, how probable is unclear) that there could be challenges to the Certificates on January 6.

All in all, we should be prepared for the possibility (note: not the probability, the possibility) of not knowing a winner of the Presidency until the wee small hours of the morning of January 7.

I’ll close with the wisdom of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which says on it in comforting letters:

“Don’t Panic.”

If you want even more details about this, you can visit the Congressional Research Service and the US Constitution and read about it on your own!

Honors in Social Studies at BHS

It’s this time of year when students and parents turn their thoughts to next year’s classes.  A common question we get is whether or not to pursue Honors level work in those classes.  The Department has spent a lot of time pondering this question, and we’d like to offer some basic guidelines to help families to make these decisions.

Qualities of an Honors student include:

  1. Being in school. Our analysis tells us that students who find success at the Honors level are absent no more than 3 times per semester at the most.
  2. Doing homework independently. Successful Honors students complete 95% or more of their homework without being nagged by parents or teachers to do so.
  3. Being an active participant. Successful Honors students contribute to class discussion regularly and without the teacher prompting them to do so.
  4. Being opinionated but with evidence. Successful Honors students are able to form and articulate an opinion and back it up with evidence. They can do this both orally and in writing.
  5. Being curious about the world. Successful Honors students are interested in the world around them. They follow current events, consume news items on their own and are interested in talking about them. They have an ambition to see the places they hear and read about.
  6. Being a reader. Successful Honors students see reading as enjoyable, not as a burden or a chore. They regularly spend time with books, magazines, newspapers, web articles, etc.
  7. Being motivated for their own success. Successful Honors students are self-motivated to: master material; improve their performance; and to work hard every day.
  8. Being resilient. Successful Honors students are able to bounce back from set-backs. They have a growth mindset about improving themselves and their performance. They believe in their ability to improve, and they take feedback constructively.
  9. Being strong students. Successful Honors students know how to be a student.  They are adept at note-taking, test preparation and organization.
  10. Being passionate about the social sciences. If there isn’t an interest in the subject matter, why bother taking Honors? Successful Honors students want to know more about the subject and are passionate about the topics the course covers. Of course, not all topics will inspire the same level of passion, but Honors requires a higher level of interest overall.

We’d expect to see an Honors student demonstrate a high level of achievement in his or her classes, but we don’t make our recommendations solely on the basis of the grade the student earned in our classes.  So if you or your child is contemplating Honors work in the Social Studies, go through the above 10 items and have an honest conversation about them.  If you can answer yes to all 10, coupled with strong marks this year, then this seems like an easy choice.  If the answer is no to some and yes to others, then include the teacher in the conversation and ask his or her opinion!  And if the answer is no to the majority, then Honors is not going to be the path to take next year.

Executive Orders, Memorandum, and Proclamations

There has already been much made of President Trump’s use of Executive Orders in the opening days of his administration. As we have seen, in week one, he issued six Executive Orders, 10 Executive Memoranda, and one Proclamation. That is according to the White House’s website: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions, as of this publication.

So what exactly are these things? How do they differ from each other, and how do they work? We’d like to offer this information as a way to help members of the BHS community better talk about them from an informed point of view.

Firstly, it is important to note that all Presidents issue Orders, Memoranda and Proclamations. Put simply, these are the most immediate tools at a President’s disposal to direct the Executive Branch to work on his agenda and to make public statements of desires and policies.

Secondly, it is important to note that none of these tools appear in the Constitution of the United States as a power granted to the President. They have evolved over time as convenient tools that allow the President to direct the attention and efforts of his Cabinet officers and their respective bureaucracies. While not exactly a Constitutional power, the Congressional Research Service considers them to be an inherent, albeit hazy, power of the President.

An Executive Order is, according to Merriam Webster’s Law Dictionary, “an order issued by a government’s executive on the basis of authority specifically granted to the executive branch (as by the U.S. Constitution or a congressional act).” This Order does not enter into force until it is printed in the Federal Register. If the Order is within the scope of the powers granted to the Executive Branch under the Constitution, then the Order has the force of law.  If it does not, or if it comes into conflict with pre-existing legislation or Constitutional authority, then it will be challenged, and the Supreme Court will have to make a ruling on its applicability. Until such time as this happens, however, the offices of the Executive Branch must comply with the contents of the Order as though it were a law.

The Federal Register can be viewed here and in the above link. You will notice, should you click the link, that Executive Orders are numbered sequentially. You will also notice that (as of this writing) the Federal Register has yet to create a Distribution Table for President Trump. As a result, there is a question as to the efficacy of these Orders until such time as they are entered and numbered. This is no doubt a function of time and bureaucracy, however, and will likely be rectified soon.

An Executive Memorandum is very similar to the Executive Order, and some have argued that they should both be lumped together and be called “Executive Actions.” However, a Memorandum does not carry the same force of a law, is not sequentially numbered, and is not entered into the Federal Register. In fact, a Memorandum does not even have to be public. It is similar to an Order in that the Memorandum directs members of the Executive Branch to do something in a certain way, or not do something in a certain way.  Different Presidents have treated Memoranda in different ways, with some viewing them as equivalent to an Order and others not. The Obama Administration began the practice of making Memoranda publicly available.

Lastly, an Executive Proclamation (or Presidential Proclamation as it is commonly known) is a mostly ceremonial statement directed at those outside of the Executive Branch. It does not necessarily carry any force of law, depending upon the content, and whether or not there is Congressional authorization behind it. The President may proclaim a day of mourning, a day of celebration of a person or group or event, for instance. According to the Yale Law Library, Proclamations also encompass Presidential Pardons, which do have the force of law. Proclamations may also make statements of policy, but like the others, are subject to challenge and review should they prove to be unconstitutional.

We hope that this is helpful as you go forward and discuss the actions taken by whomever occupies the White House at whatever point in history you feel like arguing about.

Welcome Back!

We in the Social Studies Department would like to welcome our students back to school, and extend a warm welcome to all the new students here at BHS! We are excited to meet you and begin our time together. For those of you who are new, our course progression is as follows:

9th Grade: US History I: 1700 – 1900

10th Grade: US History II: 1900 – Present

11th Grade: World History II: 1600 – Present

12th Grade: Electives.

Our Electives are generally open to all 11th and 12th grade students. 10th grade students may petition the department chair for permission if their schedules allow it.

Welcome Back!

 

Link

There is an on-going kerfuffle over the depiction of slavery in a textbook published by McGraw-Hill and used in Texas high school classrooms, in which slaves are depicted as “workers” whose lives weren’t so bad. An interesting point about how textbooks are written was recently made in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. The article is linked up below, but the larger point about why grammar matters to how we talk about the tough topics in history is one well worth considering for both students and teachers.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html?ribbon-ad-idx=3&src=me&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Most%20Emailed&pgtype=article

Keys to Literacy

The Social Studies Department is pleased to announce our new partnership with the Keys to Literacy Program. During the 2015-2016 school year, teachers in the Department will be working with the staff at Keys to Literacy to develop and implement strategies in conjunction with the BHS English Department, and eventually all of Burlington High School. From the Keys book:

The Key Comprehension Routine is a combination of comprehension, writing and study strategies that helps students understand and learn content information. The routine helps teachers provide effective comprehension instruction using existing subject-area material.”

Snow Day Work

Burlington High School is participating in a pilot program with the DESE to see if the loss of days to snowfall in the winter can be made up.  To that end, the Social Studies Department has created a series of projects that students can complete in order to be granted two days worth of snow day relief.  These projects all revolve around participation in a civic society at the state and local level. To access these projects, please click the link entitled: Snow Day Work in the banner above.  Please note that in order to see the documents describing the project, you will need to be signed into the Burlington Public Schools’ domain.  Requests to share the project outside of that domain will not be granted.

Students and parents should contact teachers directly with any questions or concerns they may have as they arise.

Happy Constitution Week Day #5

Today is the final day of Constitution Week, but the Constitution is a document that deserves thought and attention every day!  So just because the week is over, don’t stop looking for ways that the Constitution can interact with your daily life!

Did you know that the Constitution of the United States is the shortest one in the world? The document drafted in 1787 totaled 4,400 words. The entire original document takes up four pages, each one measuring about 29 by 24 inches (73 by 60 centimeters). With the signature section, there are 4,543 words, and including all of the amendments brings the total up to 7,591.

And did you also know that nowhere in the Constitution is the word “democracy” used? The government established by the Founders is a republic, a system of government in which the people elect representatives to do the governing for them!

Speaking of the Constitution, there’s an essay competition out there for students to write about the Bill of Rights!

The process is easy: students should click this link. After registering, they simply provide basic information and answer this question in 800 words or less: “Since you were born, has America moved closer to or further away from the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence?”
The first prize winner will receive $5,000, second prize $3,000, and third prize $1,500! Students that submit essays by November 15, 2014 are also eligible for one of five $100 Early Bird cash prizes.
The competition is sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, and the entry deadline is December 5, 2014.

Happy Constitution Week Day 4

Today’s fact about the writing of the Constitution is:

The Constitutional delegates met in secret, behind locked doors with sentries guarding the doors. The press was not allowed to attend. The windows were kept closed despite high temperatures and high humidity. Six days a week, for more than three months, they discussed, debated and voted all day in a hot, stuffy, closed room.  The reason for the secrecy was due to the fact that the delegates were sent to revise the Articles of Confederation, not draft a whole new government.  They were concerned that if word of what they were doing were to leak, they would be called home.  So technically, what they were doing could be seen as illegal!  When asked about that possibility, George Washington said: “The legality of this Convention I do not mean to discuss…. That powers are wanting, none can deny…. That which takes the shortest course to obtain them, will, in my opinion, under present circumstances, be found best. Otherwise, like a house on fire, whilst the most regular mode of extinguishing it is contended for, the building is reduced to ashes.”

Did you know you can have the Constitution on your iPad? Go to:  https://itunes.apple.com/app/u.s.-constitution-and-facts/id391169491?mt=8 to download this free copy of the Constitution of the United States of America. Supreme Court Justices travel with a copy wherever they go, and now you can too!

Happy Constitution Day!

Happy Constitution Day! On this day in 1787, the Constitution was signed by 39 representatives from the states who chose to send representatives to the Convention. The oldest person to sign the Constitution was Benjamin Franklin (81). The youngest was Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey (26).

Today’s Constitution Day came about because of the efforts of Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who said when arguing for the creation of the day: “…September 17 is more important to our everyday lives than Columbus Day, more important to our everyday lives than Thanksgiving, more important to our everyday lives than the Fourth of July…” You can read the full text of his speech at the byrdcenter.org’s website linked up here.

There’s a national Preamble Challenge today.  To participate, record yourself reciting the Preamble to the Constitution (below) and post it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or social media of your choice! Use the hashtag #ConstitutionDay2014 or #preamble or #preamblechallenge.  Looks like at least a million other people are doing it today. You should too!  There are also hundreds of special naturalization ceremonies going on around the nation to welcome our newest citizens!

The Preamble is 52 words, and it reads: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”