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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.

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Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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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