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The electoral college and other quirks of U.S. voting

BRISTOL — To get a sense of why the Electoral College is criticized so heavily these days, one need only consider that Republican Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by 2,868,686 ballots.
One way to look at that fact? The Electoral College system had the equivalent effect of erasing every vote cast for Democrat Hillary Clinton in Vermont — and in 12 other small states, plus one congressional district of a 13th, plus the District of Columbia.
And it’s not unthinkable that this November’s presidential election will produce a similar result.
“Much more likely (than Trump winning the popular vote) would be the same outcome as in 2016 — Trump losing the popular vote to the Democratic candidate, but winning enough electoral votes to be re-elected,” wrote Eric L. Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, in the Independent this past April.
If this comes to pass, it would be the third time in the last six presidential elections that a Republican candidate was elected despite losing the popular vote.
So what is this Electoral College, exactly, where did it come from and why do we still have it?
These were among several questions that retired history teacher Jeff Johnson attempted to answer on Thursday, Feb. 13, in a talk called “History Matters: The Evolution of the Presidential Election Process,” which he gave at the Bristol Firehouse.
About two-dozen people braved the frigid winter winds to attend the talk, which is one of several educational programs organized by Bristol Democratic Committee in an informal, ongoing series.
Event organizer Christine Homer explained the origins of that series.
“My husband, Robert Compton, and I have made it a point over the past few years to go to interesting educational talks around the state,” Homer said.
In January she and Compton attended Johnson’s presentation at the Eastview at Middlebury retirement community, and were so impressed that they asked him to come to Bristol.
“We feel that the better educated people are about history, they will have a better perspective on what is happening in the news,” Homer said. “With the presidential election this year, this subject seemed very appropriate.”
Johnson graduated from Middlebury College in 1983 and taught middle and high school social studies, history and civics for 32 years. Every four years since 2008 he has offered courses on the election process. Now retired and living in Castleton, he gives monthly history talks at Eastview.
Johnson divided “History Matters,” which was recorded by Northeast Addison Television (neatbristol.com), into three subtopics:
• The roots of the Electoral College system.
• Historical forces that have dramatically altered the original concepts behind the Electoral College.
• Reasons the Electoral College is so unpopular today and movements to abolish or reform it.
Bristol candidate for selectboard Bill Mount attended the talk.
“It was great to meet so many people who care enough about our little town to be so involved,” he told the Independent in an email. “It also shows that we don’t have to be polarized and argumentative, that we can find and enjoy common ground on local issues, surely, if we can do so with one as big as the way we elect a President.”
Homer was pleased with the program, she said.
“I felt Jeff’s talk gave a nuanced view on the topic and he was not biased in his approach,” she said.
On March 9, Bristol Democrats have organized another talk at the Bristol Firehouse, “Rank Choice Voting.” The talk will begin at 7 p.m.
“I would hope that both of these programs will give people more information on how the election system works,” Homer said, who pointed out that some of the audience questions this past Thursday pointed to a need for continued efforts. “We used to teach civics in schools but nowadays people do not have that foundation of knowledge and often react from a lack of information.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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