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Published: Sunday, 11/12/2000

Loyalty counts for those in Electoral College

BY KELLY LECKER AND JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

“When I was old enough I went to vote,” said Mrs. Coil, 77, of Hicksville. “I voted Democrat. I voted for Roosevelt. When I got home my husband asked me who I voted for and I said Roosevelt. He said, `That is the last time you will vote for a Democrat.' And it was.”

Because George W. Bush won Ohio's popular vote, Mrs. Coil and 20 other Republican electors will cast their votes when the Electoral College meets Dec. 18. They are bound by a pledge and loosely by Ohio law to vote for Mr. Bush.

But those safeguards are unnecessary, party leaders and electors said.

That's because like Mrs. Coil, the others were chosen because they rank among the Republican party's most loyal and active members. The appointments are meant to honor their dedication. The chances of anyone defecting are slim to none, electors and party leaders say.

“I think it's intellectually dishonest,” Ohio elector Paul Hoag of Holland said. “It's morally reprehensible to take it upon yourself. Whoever is in the majority has won the vote. You have to be honest with yourself and the millions of people in Ohio who voted.''

Though the Electoral College has always been an important component to electing a president, few outside the party operatives have noticed much about the process or the electors.

This year, though, the Electoral College has been a focal point in the close and controversial presidential election. Ohio electors say they have had calls from neighbors, strangers, and national media.

Both parties in Ohio choose 21 electors every presidential year.

The Republicans, who are voting this time, picked one from each congressional district and two at-large electors.

Party leaders - county chairmen, Republican mayors, etc. - from each district meet to select one person to represent them. The two at-large electors were chosen after collaboration by Governor Taft and Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett.

“Generally it's a pretty open process,” Mr. Bennett said. “It's considered an honor.”

Two electors are from northwest Ohio: Mrs. Coil from Hicksville and Mr. Hoag, a Holland resident and GOP state central committee member.

The electors are company presidents and stay-at-home moms. They include the minority outreach coordinator for the Ohio Republican Party and more than a few former elections directors and county GOP chairmen.

They are staunch defenders of the party and of the electoral process.

“Are those who don't vote, are the children or those who are handicapped to the point they can't vote, are they not to be represented?” said Donna Harter of New Madison. “And the wisdom of our Constitution gives smaller states some say.”

Mr. Hoag agreed.

“The Electoral College is a series of checks and balances,” he said.

The electors get the real votes in the presidential election because the Founding Fathers in the late 1700s didn't think it was practical - or proper - for citizens to elect their president directly.

Some feared that candidates would flock to big cities and ignore small states if all that mattered was getting as many votes as possible.

Others doubted that ordinary citizens could make an intelligent vote. After all, with no mass media and bad roads, most people didn't know of any politicians outside their states.

The Founding Fathers kicked around at least seven proposals before settling on the Electoral College.

By the end of the Civil War, the rise of political parties had forced another spin on the process: the “winner-take-all” approach to electors. At the time, it was too easy for third-party candidates to gain a foothold in the Electoral College, so the two major political parties lobbied for statewide elections to pick one big slate of electors.

That's the way it is in Ohio and 47 other states. Only Nebraska and Maine allow their states' electoral votes to be split.

Now the political parties choose electors before the November ballots, and whichever candidate wins, those electors get to travel to the state capitol to pledge their vote formally to the party's candidate.

Ohio and 23 other states require their electors to cast votes according to that state's popular vote.

An Ohio elector has never broken the pledge, but it's happened at least eight times in the country's history. Most recently, in 1988, a West Virginia elector pledged to Michael Dukakis voted instead for Mr. Dukakis's running mate, Lloyd Bentsen.

A defection has never changed the course of the election, and no elector has been prosecuted criminally.

In Ohio, there's no specific criminal sanction, but a defecting elector could be charged with a general violation of election law, a first-degree misdemeanor.

Electors admitted they half-expected to get some calls trying to sway their votes in light of the controversy surrounding the presidential election. They said it wouldn't have mattered.

“I don't know these folks personally, but I trust the people who chose them. ... I think everyone will be a straight shooter on this issue,” elector Deborah Burstion-Donbraye of Cleveland said. “We've been through enough. We don't need any more uncertainty about who the leader will be for the next four years.”

Ms. Burstion-Donbraye is director of minority outreach for the Ohio Republican Party. She worked two of President Reagan's attorneys general. In the early 1990s, she was chief of staff to Michael Williams, the assistant secretary for civil rights in President Bush's Education Department. Later, in 1993 and 1994, Ms. Burstion-Donbraye was press secretary to George W. Bush during his successful first campaign for Texas governor.

Others echoed Ms. Burstion-Donbraye's sentiments.

“I'm going to vote for Bush because Bush won Ohio,” Mrs. Coil said. “Anybody who knows me knows they couldn't push me the other way.”

Said Ohio elector Don Simmons from Sharon Center in Medina County: “I think it would be absolutely amazing to me if anybody in Ohio did something like that. I don't know what's going to happen around the country. If two votes would change, we'd have a different president.”

The electors in Ohio are paid $10 for their services - payment required by a 1957 statute. They also get 10 cents a mile to cover the cost of traveling to Columbus on their Election Day, Dec. 18. Ohio's electors meet at noon. Michigan's meet in Lansing at 2 p.m.

In Michigan, they don't get paid for their services. But they also don't have to worry about jail. They're automatically kicked off the panel if they don't vote for the candidate to whom they're pledged. Both states have similar rules for filling vacancies. If any elector fails to show up, the electors who did show get to choose a new one to fill the spot. There are no rules on finding someone.

Some electors said they hope the country learns something about the political process from this election.

“I see a lot of good coming out of this,” Ms. Burstion-Donbraye said. “I see a lot of honest discussion. And I think we'll no longer take our votes for granted.”

Blade staff writer Steve Murphy contributed to this report.



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