A look at who's really selecting our next president

2012-11-04T00:00:00Z 2012-11-07T00:21:12Z A look at who's really selecting our next presidentDan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
November 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | It's been called the most important election of our lives; a race whose outcome will determine the future of the United States. And yet, not a single American will vote for either Republican Mitt Romney or Democrat Barack Obama on Tuesday.

It's true.

The votes cast on Election Day for president are not actually votes for the candidates themselves. Instead, voters are choosing their state's presidential electors, the 11 people in Indiana and 20 from Illinois who will officially cast their state's electoral votes Dec. 17.

Unlike most elections, the winner in the race for president isn't determined by which candidate gets the most votes overall. The presidential contest is actually decided by who gets the most votes in each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Under the U.S. Constitution, each state is assigned electoral votes equal to their representation in Congress. So Indiana, with its nine representatives in the U.S. House and two U.S. senators, has 11 electoral votes. State law awards Indiana's electoral votes to the candidate with the highest number of popular votes in the state.

In total, there are 538 electoral votes. The first candidate to reach 270 -- a majority -- is elected president.

In most states, including Indiana, electors are chosen at the state conventions of each political party. Hoosier Republicans and Democrats both pick an elector from each congressional district, plus two more from anywhere in the state.

That means in Northwest Indiana, the 1st Congressional District, the race for president is really a battle between two Valparaiso men -- Republican Chuck Williams and Democrat Clay Patton. Don't look for their names on the ballot, though. Since 1936, Indiana law has mandated only the presidential candidates be listed and not the slate of electors who will actually cast the state's electoral votes.

This is Williams' second time serving as a potential elector. The Romney supporter was tapped by the GOP to vote for John McCain in 2008, but didn't get to because Obama outpolled McCain by 28,391 votes in Indiana.

Williams, the owner of two Porter County businesses, is fairly certain this time around, given Romney's lead in every statewide poll, that he'll be joining 10 other Romney electors in the Indiana House chamber at 9 a.m. region time Dec. 17 to cast Indiana's 11 electoral votes for Romney.

"He certainly has one of the best qualifications, I feel, to run the country," Williams said. "He's run a state, he's run multibillion-dollar companies, and he's run huge not-for-profits."

On the other hand, should Obama pull off a surprise victory in Indiana, Patton said he is more than ready to award the state's electoral votes to Barack Obama.

Patton, an attorney, is serving as a potential elector for the first time, but he observed Indiana electors' vote in 2000 and 2008. Patton said the extremely close result in 2000, where Republican George W. Bush won 271 electoral votes to Democrat Al Gore's 266 -- despite Gore's winning the national popular vote -- inspired him to watch the process in person.

"Because of all of the turmoil that was spinning about after the Florida election that year, it kind of piqued my interest a little bit," Patton said. "I found it to be interesting, kind of just procedural but yet an important historical event that I think people don't notice."

If Patton had his way the Electoral College would be eliminated in favor of a national popular vote, just as Americans in 1913 changed the Constitution to require U.S. senators be popularly elected rather than chosen by state legislatures.

"When you have essentially two candidates running and focused on about a half dozen states, and the late-night talk show joke is that they're running for president of Ohio, it shouldn't be that way," Patton said, noting both candidates have ignored Indiana and Illinois.

"If it were a popular vote-type thing, you would think that they would both be in at least the top 15 cities and media markets," he said.

Williams disagreed. He believes the Electoral College ensures candidates campaign in states they'd otherwise ignore if a national popular vote decided the outcome.

"I think it actually broadens the appeal of the campaigns to middle America," Williams said. "In 2008, Barack Obama wouldn't have been in Indiana if it wasn't for the Electoral College."

In 1970, U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote for president. His plan was approved by the U.S. House but filibustered to death in the Senate. Surveys at the time showed the proposed amendment also wasn't likely to win approval by the required three-fourths of the states.

Patton suggested if the Electoral College misfires in 2012, with Romney winning the popular vote but Obama winning the electoral vote, Americans will want a new way to elect their president. 

"If it happens two times in 12 years and it has affected both political parties negatively, I think both sides will look at it once again," Patton said.

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