At Home With Jeff: Electoral college

Martinez News-Gazette Columnist

Government has always interested me. I worked as a public servant for forty years at the local and federal levels so have a good understanding of the nuts and bolts that go into providing various services but had never seriously thought about the Electoral College. As I was listening to the radio this morning, news commentators and callers debated the merits of our Electoral College used for national presidential elections. This KCBS radio program peaked my interest.

After reading several online articles, I learned that Electoral votes are allocated among the states based on U.S. Congressional delegation. Each state gets two votes for its two senators plus one vote for each congressman in the U. S. House of Representatives.

California has 55 votes, the most of anybody, because we are the most populous state. Thirty-nine million people, more than 12 percent of the entire nation, reside in the Golden State. Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming are tied with least. They each have 3 Electoral votes.

People on the radio argued that this whole Electoral College setup was designed before we had computers and advanced technology. Today we have the means for every citizen to vote directly for president – One person, one vote.

Abolishing the Electoral College sounds easy but would actually be very difficult. A Constitutional amendment would be needed. That would require approval by two-thirds of the U.S. House of Representatives, two-thirds of the Senate, and ratification by three-quarters of the states. Having that many people agree on anything is harder than finding a four-leaf clover.

Getting a consensus on anything seems practically impossible these days. We cannot even agree that the world is round. Repeated surveys show that two to four percent of Americans believe the earth is flat, and the number has been steadily growing in recent years. On Nov 9th, 2018, five hundred “flat-Earthers” met in North Carolina for the first annual Flat Earth International Conference. The 2019 conference in Dallas, Texas is shaping up to be even more popular. If you are not doing anything on November 14th and 15th, it might be interesting to attend. Go to for more information.

The Apollo moon landing is another case where people do not agree. Public interest in conspiracy theories has persisted for more than 40 years. Polls find that between 6% and 20% of Americans firmly believe the manned moon landings never happened. As Stuart Chase famously said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”

Considering the scarcity of four-leaf clovers, it sounds like those people on the radio this morning were just dreaming when they proposed abolishing the Electoral College during our lifetime. Our legislators typically propose around 200 constitutional amendments each term. During the 228 years from 1789 through 2017, 11,699 constitutional amendments were proposed in congress yet our constitution was amended only 27 times. The 27th amendment was approved by congress in 1789 but did not go into effect until May 20, 1992 when it was finally ratified by three-quarters of the states.

I probably should have known all this before but I didn’t. I blame that on my unique education in U.S. Government studies. At Soquel High School in Santa Cruz, our Government teacher was named Mrs Takala. At the time, all the students thought that she was ancient. Looking back, she was probably 60. That doesn’t seem very old now. The rumor around school was that Mrs. Takala was so old that she had only eight digits in her social security number. In researching for the article this week, I found that it is impossible to have eight digits.

When Social Security Numbers were created in 1936 to track workers’ earnings to determine Social Security benefits, the Social Security Board came up with a nine digit identifier. The first three digits denoted the geographic area where the card is issued, the next two digits denoted the group number, and the final four digits were the individual serial number. This scheme lasted until 2011 when the Social Security Administration started issuing Social Security Numbers randomly.

So far, 460 million Social Security Numbers have been issued, with about 5.5 million more issued each year. At this rate, we will run out of Social Security Numbers in 2093. There never were eight digit numbers but my great grandkids may someday have ten digits.

The remarkable thing about Mrs. Frances Takala was her habit of falling asleep during class. It is one of my fondest memories of High School. She would give us students a reading assignment in the textbook (like studying about the Electoral College) then sit at her big wooden desk to grade papers. We would stay very quiet and peek over our textbooks for ten or fifteen minutes until she nodded off. After that, we could do anything we wanted as long as we didn’t make any noise. Mrs. Takala would jerk awake when the passing bell rang to end the period. I do not believe that she ever caught on that we were helping her get a nap every afternoon.

In all fairness, her class was the period after lunch and that particular classroom received more than its share of warm sunshine in the afternoon. Conditions could not have been more conducive to forty winks. Mrs. Takala turned out to be one of the more memorable teachers in all my years of school. I cannot, however, remember anything she taught us about U.S. Government.

To make up for this, I now take every opportunity to read about how different countries are governed. The more I learn about our government in America, the more it amazes me. Vivian and I have visited more than four dozen countries around the world. We have not yet seen any with a better system. At 242 years old, America has one of the oldest democracies on earth; some say it is the oldest. This is because it changes, adapts and evolves to fit the times. Who knows? Maybe someday in the far-off future we will even do away with the Electoral College!

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