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Q&A: Frank Argote-Freyre, Ph.D., Demystifies the Electoral College

Kean University Associate Professor of Latin American history Frank Argote-Freyre, Ph.D.

Frank Argote-Freyre, Ph.D., is a Kean University associate professor of history. He also served as a member of the Electoral College in 2012. He spoke with Kean News about the 2020 Presidential election and the future of the Electoral College.

Q. To begin, how did you become an elector? 

I was selected in 2012 by the Democratic party to be an elector for Barack Obama. Each state’s political party chooses a slate of electors prior to the presidential election. These selections are honorary and basically fall into two categories: party loyalists, which was not me, and folks who make up constituent groups important to the respective party. I was president of the Latino Action Network, a large civil rights organization in New Jersey. I could serve again, and as a public service and a historian, I would serve if asked, even though I oppose the institution of the Electoral College. But it’s not customary to be asked again.

Q. What does an elector do? Do electors get paid?

Electoral votes are cast on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, as specified by the U.S. Constitution. This year it’s December 14. All electors in all the states meet on that day. 

In New Jersey, the Electoral College votes in the Senate chamber in Trenton. First, you go to a conference room to sign a series of affidavits saying you are voting for the person you’ve sworn to vote for. You spend a half-hour signing documents, which certify your decision to vote for that person. Then you go to the state Senate chamber for an official public ceremony, officiated by the governor or lieutenant governor. Then you’re done. 

You do not get paid. There’s a reception that follows, where people gather to celebrate the election. You also get tickets to the Inauguration in January. Your vote also becomes a part of U.S. history. It’s recorded in the Library of Congress.

Q. Since each state’s electors vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state, can electors change their vote when the Electoral College meets? Has it ever happened?

As an elector in New Jersey, I could have voted for someone else, but people don’t. When I was selected, there was a screening process. They knew I was not going to change my vote for Mitt Romney. They try to ensure they won’t pick people who are, the term is “faithless electors.”

In fact, I received two petitions, one from an organization in Arizona and one from a Pennsylvania woman, asking me to change my vote for Romney. But I thought Obama was a far better candidate, and I was never going to change my vote. The reason people don’t change is because they’re committed to the person they are voting for.

It has happened, most recently in 2016 in Washington State. The state went for Hillary Clinton, but several electors decided not to vote for her. One specifically voted for Colin Powell. The articles I’ve read don’t give any reason why. The state fined him $1,000 for doing that. He then initiated a court action, saying he can vote for whomever he wanted. This past July it resulted in a unanimous ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court in no uncertain terms said states can force electors to vote for whomever they were designated to vote for. But the word is “can.” The Constitution in this matter leaves all the authority to the states. Each state has slightly different rules, thus the mischievous playground we’re in with this election right now.

Q. Donald Trump is still refusing to concede, suggesting things like the U.S. Supreme Court will throw out the election, and Congress will choose the president. Can that really happen? Has it ever happened?

The president’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, said in an interview the goal is to hold off states from certifying the vote. If there are not enough electoral votes certified by December 14, the vote then goes to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would get one vote. Of the 50 state delegations, Republicans hold a majority.  

But even if election results were overturned in one state, Trump doesn’t win. Multiple states are involved, and Biden has 306 electoral votes. Multiple states would have to be overturned. Once states certify their votes, it becomes harder and harder for Trump to keep pursuing it. A national election has never been overturned by the courts.

The most complicated situation occurred in the aftermath of the 1876 election with allegations of massive voter fraud on both sides. To resolve the dispute, Congress appointed an electoral commission after the Electoral College could not select a victor. It was a real crisis. Eventually, Democrats and Republicans reached a deal where Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, would be elected president in return for pulling all U.S. troops from the South. Those troops had been maintaining order and policies that provided African-Americans with civil rights. Troops were withdrawn and the Jim Crow era began. 

Q. What flaws in the election process have been exposed by the presidential election this year? 

I’ve been tremendously pleased with the way the process has functioned. You’ve had this barrage of lawsuits filed by the Trump candidacy in states where he lost, trying to overturn the results, and they’re being systematically dealt with in the courts. Cases are being heard and dismissed. I feel this is a resounding affirmation of the strong nature of our process.

Q. There are many political observers — and a recent Washington Post editorial — calling for the Electoral College to be abolished. What do you think?

It should be abolished. I always kid around, I’m like Groucho Marx — I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member. I think it is a fundamentally undemocratic institution. Alexander Hamilton was the primary person behind it. He wanted more voters involved, but the “right” kind of voters. He was concerned about the rabble. I think we’ve moved long beyond that, and we should have direct popular vote. 

The main argument against the popular vote is that the founders wanted a system that would give some power to smaller states. In the Electoral College, each state has two electoral votes, equal to the two U.S. Senators each state has, plus a number equal to the number of House representatives each state has. Some smaller states have only one House member, and have 3 electoral votes. New Jersey, with 12 House seats, has 14 electoral votes.

The sense is if you got rid of the Electoral College, candidates would never visit the smaller states and their concerns would be spurned. But with the Electoral College, the smaller states have proportionately more power.

Q. What is the likelihood that Electoral College reform will ever happen?

I don’t foresee that anytime soon. You would need an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. You would need a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to approve a Constitutional amendment. As you know, they can’t even decide on a lunch menu. Then you’d have to have three-quarters of states approve the amendment, 38 state legislatures. That is a high bar to meet.

If you’re a Republican looking at the popular vote over the last five or six elections, I think they only won the popular vote once — the last time in 2004, when George W. Bush beat John Kerry. If you are a legislator in any state controlled by Republicans, why would you vote to get rid of the Electoral College?