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Can the Electoral College Reverse the Results of an Election?

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Every four years, people talk about the oddness of the Electoral College. And just like in 2000, the last time there was a popular vote/Electoral College mismatch, some citizens have decided to attempt to flip electors from Donald Trump to either Hillary Clinton or a third candidate (if enough electors go to the third candidate, the House would then have to choose from among the top three).

Which leads to the question: can the Electoral College actually change the results of the election? It’s an awkwardly worded question for a very specific reason, and the answer is no. But for the question people think that they’re asking—could the Electoral College reverse the results of the election?—the answer is yes, although it’s profoundly unlikely.

The reason it’s an oddly worded question is that the November election is not a vote for president. The vote is for a set of electors who will then go and vote for the president in December. Therefore, the electors cannot change the results of the election since they’re the ones being elected. In one of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton explained the reasoning for forgoing direct democracy, as well as why they avoided letting politicians just make the decision. Largely, the problem was that neither the public nor the politicians could be trusted. Hamilton wrote:

“The Executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence. This advantage will also be secured, by making his re-election to depend on a special body of representatives, deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice.”

There were other issues the founding fathers were trying to avoid as well, such as the risk of a smorgasbord of regional candidates. As historian Jack Rakove told Stanford News in 2012, “it would become truly difficult to produce a popular majority with a field of favorite sons.”

More controversially, the founding fathers faced the issue of slavery. Because slaves couldn’t vote, a direct popular vote would weaken the power of the South. Thanks to the three-fifths compromise, however, the slave states had greater power under an electoral system than under a direct voting system, because slaves couldn’t vote but did count for the number of representatives. And more representatives meant more electors (the number of electors equals the state’s number of representatives plus the number of senators). As James Madison said in 1787:

“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”

But objections to the elector’s powers appeared as soon as races got competitive. In 1796, Pennsylvanian Samuel Miles became the first known faithless elector when, despite being chosen as a Federalist, he voted for opposition candidate Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to the Gazette of the United States, a disgruntled Pennsylvania voter asked, “What, do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No! I choose him to act, not to think.”

SO WOULD IT WORK?

As we have written about before, in about half the states plus Washington, D.C., electors are required to vote for their state’s popular vote winner—some states to the point that any attempt to defy this would forfeit the elector’s position. They’re extreme, but in the controversial 1952 Ray v. Blair case, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring pledges from electors to vote for a particular candidate was constitutional. But the question that remains unanswered is whether any punishment for breaking those pledges is constitutional. It’s never mattered, but would quickly become a critical issue if electors defected en masse.

Others say that because Hillary Clinton has already conceded, this strategy wouldn’t work. But there’s no requirement that an elector vote for a viable candidate. In 1976, one of the electors voted for Ronald Reagan, who hadn’t even won his party’s primary. In 1956, another elector voted for a local circuit court judge rather than Adlai Stevenson.

A stronger issue standing in the way is how electors are chosen. Generally, in spring and summer, each state’s political parties nominate a slate of electors from a list of party faithful. Any attempt to get defections would require electors to go against a party that chose them specifically for their loyalty.

The Ray v. Blair decision gave one of the most famous dissents in Supreme Court history, where Justice Jackson wrote, “No one faithful to our history can deny that the plan originally contemplated, what is implicit in its text, that electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the men best qualified for the Nation's highest offices.” While it would be considered highly irregular and is highly unlikely, the possibility is there. And will remain there until January 6, 2017, when the votes are officially counted before a joint session of Congress.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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