How to turn into a better and more successful interpreter in the new year.

January 2, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

2014 was a great year for many of us. Quite a few of you developed professionally and became better at what you do. I congratulate you for that important achievement; unfortunately, competitors are still out there, languages are still changing, technology continues to improve, and clients (agencies or direct corporations) are willing to pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best possible price. The question is: How do we adapt to reality, keep up with technology, and improve our service? The answer is complex and it includes many different issues that have to be addressed. Today, at the dawn of a new year, the time for planning activities, and programming agendas, we will concentrate on one of them: Professional development.

It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have a satisfied client who does not want to have anything to do with any other interpreter but you, unless you can deliver quality interpreting and state-of-the-art technology. In other words, we need to be better interpreters. We need to study, we have to practice our craft, we should have a peer support network (those colleagues you call when in doubt about a term, a client or grammar) and we need to attend professional conferences.

I personally find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you find out what is happening out there in the very competitive world of interpreting. Fortunately there are many professional conferences all year long and all over the world. Fortunately (for many of us) attending a professional conference is tax deductible in our respective countries. Unfortunately there are so many attractive conferences and we have to pick and choose where to go.   I understand that some of you may decide to attend one conference per year or maybe your policy is to go to conferences that are offered near your home base. I also know that many of you have professional agendas that may keep you from attending a particular event even if you wanted to be there. I applaud all organizations and individuals who put together a conference. I salute all presenters and support staff that makes a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.

Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2015 conferences that I am determined to attend:

The Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI) Annual Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina (March 14) Although I have never attended this conference, and this year will be its 28th. edition, I have always heard good things about their program, organization, and attendees. The south is one of the fastest growing markets for interpreting services, and as a professional concerned with the development of our industry, I believe this is the right time to go to Meredith College in Raleigh and check it out.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia (May 15-17) I am determined to be in Atlanta in May for the largest judiciary and legal interpreter and translator gathering anywhere in the world. This conference lets me have an accurate idea of the changes in this area that is so important for our profession in the United States. It is a unique event because everybody shares the same field and you get to see and network with colleagues that do not attend other non-court interpreting conferences.

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Bordeaux, France (September 5-6). I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, and this organization for that matter, presents a unique point of view of our profession that I consider priceless. It is the only international conference of this size where there are no corporate sponsors. All you see is translators and interpreters like you. Some of the results of this innovative approach are that the conference attracts a very important group of colleagues that stay away from other events because they are bothered by the corporate presence. This is the conference to attend if you want to learn how to deal with agencies, corporate clients and governments, because the absence of all those other players fosters this dialogue. You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything and that is fun to have at least once a year.

American Translators Association (ATA) Annual Conference in Miami, Florida (November 4-7). This is the “mother” of all conferences. If you have attended one you know what I am talking about; if you have not, be prepared to be among an overwhelming number of colleagues from all over the world who gather once a year to share experiences, attend workshops and presentations, do networking, buy books, dictionaries, software, hardware, and even apply for a job as an interpreter or translator with one of the many government and private sector agencies and corporations that also attend the event. This is the conference that all language professionals have to attend at least once during their lifetime. As an added bonus, the conference will be held in warm Miami, an appealing concept in November.

Lenguando Events (All-year throughout Europe, New York City, Miami & San Diego, California: Sometime during August 12-22) Lenguando is a different experience where interpreters share their profession with other language professionals, and learn about many other language-related disciplines in a cozy gathering of diverse people with a very strong thing in common: the language. I will personally try to attend several of these interesting events, and I will specifically attend at least an event in Europe and one in the United States. This is the activity to attend this year for those colleagues who work with the Spanish language.

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above. Remember, the world of interpreting is more competitive every day and you will need an edge to beat the competition. That advantage might be what you learned at one of these conferences, or whom you met while at the convention. Please kindly share your thoughts and let us know what local, national or international conference or conferences you plan to attend in 2015.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2014.

December 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2014 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2015, we can look back and assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters our career is a constant learning experience, and from talking with many of my colleagues, 2014 was no exception. I personally grew up as an interpreter and got to appreciate our profession even more. The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had some positive developments this year: IAPTI and ATA held very successful conferences in Athens and Chicago respectively, many colleagues passed the written portion of the United States Federal Court Interpreter exam, the state of Illinois chose quality and rolled out its state court interpreter certification program, there were many opportunities for professional development, some of them very good, including several webinars in different languages and on different topics; we had some important technological advancements that made our life easier, and contrary to the pessimists’ forecast, there was plenty of work and opportunities. Of course not everything was good. Our colleagues in the U.K. continue to fight a war against mediocrity and misdirected greed, colleagues in other European countries, like Spain, are under siege by governments that want to lower the quality of translation and interpreting services in the legal arena to unimaginable levels of incompetence; interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, and of course, we had the para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

During 2014 I worked with interpreters from many countries and diverse fields of expertise. I was able to learn from, and to share my knowledge and experience with many colleagues dear to me and with some new interpreters and translators. This past year gave me the opportunity to learn many things at the professional conferences I attended, from the interpreting and translation books that I read, and of course working in the booth, the TV stations, the recording studios, and many other venues.

On the personal level, 2014 was a very important year in my life: I met new friends, developed new relationships, realized and learned to appreciate how good some of my old friends are, noticed and understood how I had been taken advantage of and stopped it, and after careful analysis, I reaffirmed my determination to remain a citizen of Chicago by purchasing a beautiful condo in a skyscraper located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile. This year I had the honor and the fortune to present before conference audiences in different continents. During the year that ends I traveled to many professional conferences and workshops, all good and beneficial. Because of their content, and for the impact they had on me, I have to mention the Mexican Translators Organization / International Book Fair (OMT/FIL) conference in Guadalajara, Mexico: a top-quality event, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators’ (NAJIT) Annual Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters’ (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Athens, Greece, and the California Federation of Interpreters (CFI) Annual Conference in Los Angeles, California. My only regret was that for professional obligations I was not able to attend the American Translators Association’s (ATA) Annual Conference in my own town of Chicago. This year that is about to end was filled with professional experiences acquired all over the world as I constantly traveled throughout the year, meeting new colleagues, including one who instantly became one of my dearest friends, and catching up with good friends and colleagues. Now, as I sit before my computer reminiscing and re-living all of these life-enriching experiences, I ask you to share some of your most significant professional moments during this past year.

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Cinco de Mayo (May 5th.) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the American holiday calendar. It is an enigma for almost everyone in the United States: Native citizens with no Mexican background wonder why, as a nation, we celebrate another country’s holiday; Hispanic-Americans are puzzled by the significance of the date; Mexicans living in the United States can hardly believe that American society commemorates a date of their national calendar that is practically non-existent in Mexico; and the rest of the world, people who live outside the United States and non-Mexican Hispanics who live in the United States, find the festivities on this date quite strange.

Historically, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army faced the French Imperial army of Napoleon III. The French had disembarked in Veracruz harbor along with the British and Spanish almost a year earlier. Their purpose was to collect heavy debts owed by the Mexican government to these three nations after Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. Mexico had incurred in those debts during a Civil War motivated in part by the expropriation of all church assets ordered by Juarez. Eventually Mexico negotiated with France and Spain and they withdrew, but Napoleon III decided to take advantage of the American Civil War and take this opportunity to establish an empire that would look after the interests of France. The French move was seen favorably by the Confederate army as Napoleon III supported the existence of a slave state.

On May 5 the French army approached the city of Puebla which was defended by the Mexican armed forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The Mexicans resisted the attack from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. After a bloody battle against the better-trained French soldiers, the Mexican army, aided by the machete-armed northern Puebla Zacapoaxtla Indians, prevailed. The Mexican victory was shorted-lived as the French army regrouped and returned a year later when they took over Puebla and eventually Mexico City, establishing the Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian I from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Although President Benito Juarez encouraged the observance of the May 5th. battle as a national holiday, the event is not part of the official holiday calendar. Only the State of Puebla (and parts of the neighboring State of Veracruz) observes this date as a local official holiday. On May 5, the rest of the Mexican society goes about their daily lives as on any other day. It is understandable that Mexico does not celebrate this date as a big holiday; it is not their independence day (Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16), the stories that spread right after the May 5th. battle describing how a handful of Mexican soldiers and Zacapoaxtla Indians had defeated a much larger well-equipped French army were quickly discredited by the truth of what happened: in reality the French had an army that was six-thousand strong, while the Mexicans had a four-thousand men army; hardly a handful battling an imperial army; but more importantly: The Mexicans won the battle but lost the war. Moreover, it was not until April 2, 1867 that Mexico recovered the city of Puebla in a decisive battle that eventually defeated Maximilian’s empire. This was the real victorious battle of Puebla; unfortunately for Mexican history, on April 2 the victorious army that beat the French was led by General Porfirio Díaz who later became a hated political figure because of his hold on the Mexican presidency for 32 years (inexplicably, or perhaps due to a manipulated “official history,” to this day Mexicans still consider him as the great dictator despite the fact that he was followed by a dictatorship that was twice as long: The 70 years of the PRI government)

Now, let’s get back to the United States in 1862, specifically California where there was a large first and second generation Mexican population. Keep in mind that until 1848 when California and other western territories became part of the United States by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic”, they were part of Mexico; their citizens had fought against Spain during the Mexican War of Independence only three decades before, and many of them became victims of discrimination, embezzlement, and forced labor by their fellow Anglo-American citizens. Most of these individuals did not speak English, were Catholic, and almost all of them were against slavery. In other words, it was in their best interest to see the Confederate army defeated in the American Civil War. Therefore, as Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine describes during an interview about his book: “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” that when he was researching for his book, he reviewed the Spanish language newspapers of California and Oregon from the 1880s, he noticed that the American Civil War and Cinco de Mayo Battle were intertwined: “…I’m seeing now in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east, and the other against the French in the south… In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo means that the Mexican army defeated the French army,” he continued. “…In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism; and the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues…” (Hayes-Bautista interview with CNN) In early spring 1862 the Union army was unable to move against the Confederates, so this victory in Puebla was a welcomed sign by these Hispanics. Another significant aspect of the Cinco de Mayo battle is that the commander of the Mexican armed forces in Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born on March 24, 1829 in a town by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. The town’s name was later changed to Goliad, and it is located in Texas. That is right: The hero of the Cinco de Mayo battle was a Texan! At the time of his birth the town was in Mexico where it was part of the State of Coahuila y las Tejas, but by the time of the battle, its name was Goliad, a name given by the Texans as an anagram of the hero of the Mexican Independence: Hidalgo, omitting the silent “H”

The Mexican population in the United States identified with Zaragoza, he was one of them who had to leave Mexico and come to Texas if he wanted to visit his hometown. The Cinco de Mayo victory was then memorialized by a network of Hispanic groups in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona called “juntas patrióticas mejicanas.” (Mexican Patriotic Assemblies). While they celebrated the Cinco de Mayo victory every year with parades and other festivities, Mexico continued to be at war with France for another five years. Eventually, the meaning of the holiday changed over time becoming the mythical story of David versus Goliath, and later embodying the U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and the Chicano Power movement of the 1960s.

On recent times this date has been adopted by business people all over the United States and many parts of the world and transformed into a festival, the second largest in the United States just behind St. Patrick’s Day, where people eat Mexican-American food and drink Mexican beer and tequila. Although most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans do not know the history of Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that many of them do not even know why they get together, have parades and listen to Mexican music on that day, they all seem to share the feeling that this is a uniquely American celebration that has extended to all Hispanics in the United States, Mexican or not, natives and foreigners, and even non-Hispanics; because every year for one day, all Americans celebrate Hispanic food, culture and traditions with pride. It has even reached the White House where President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor with Mexican-American family members, who also speaks Spanish, started a tradition of inviting Hispanics to the White House for this celebration. Because of the increasing importance and participation of Hispanics in America’s mainstream, President Barack Obama has continued the celebration, and it looks like it is here to stay, because after all, Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, it is an American celebration. I invite you to please share your thoughts about this unique celebration and its significance in the history and culture of the United States.

The Academy Awards and those who watch them from a booth.

February 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are just a few days away from that very American ceremony that the world has made its own turning it into an international event: The Academy Awards, or as it is better known: The Oscar.

There are very few broadcasts that depend more on the services of an interpreter than the Oscar ceremony. It is a fact that people will be watching, again, all over the world.  Although most of them do not speak a word of English they will have people over for food and drinks, perhaps will dress up for the occasion, and will tune in for the broadcast that will be simultaneously interpreted into their native language by a team of very skilled interpreters from a booth in Hollywood or from a TV studio somewhere else in the world. Because dear colleagues, not all interpreters will be lucky enough to be working from California; many of them will do their job from a small TV studio somewhere in their own countries where they will pick up the American feed and “pretend” that they are broadcasting from the site of the event.    The Oscar is also an important event to the interpreter community at large because let’s face it; in many countries we are part of that very small group of people who watch what Americans refer to as foreign language films (for the rest of the world: movies that are not in English) If you add the fact that a film in your own language, or even from your country, may be nominated for this coveted award, then you will have a most memorable night. But, what is the Oscar? Where did it get its nickname?

The Academy Award statuette was designed by an MGM art director named Cedric Gibbons and a sculptor named George Stanley in 1928.  At that time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences referred to it as the Academy Award of Merit. That was its original name.  It was in the 1930s that the trophy got its nickname: Oscar.  There are several tales on how the statuette came to be called Oscar.  The Academy endorses the following: A librarian who worked for the Academy in the 1930s named Margaret Herrick thought that the statuette had a physical resemblance to an uncle of hers. The uncle’s name was Oscar.  Columnist Sidney Skolsky was present when she made the remark, and he seized the name in his famous byline: “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar’.”  (Levy, Emanuel [2003].  All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. Burns & Oates. ISBN 978-0-8264-1452-6) others claim that it was Bette Davis who named the statuette Oscar after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson.  One of the earliest recorded mentions of the term Oscar goes back to a Time Magazine article about the 1934 Academy Awards ceremony.  Even Walt Disney is quoted in 1932 as thanking the Academy for his Oscar.  Others claim that it may have been named after Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.  Whatever the origin of its now world-famous name, the trophy was officially referred to as the “Oscar” in 1939 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Regardless of the language combination, the Oscar ceremony presents two interesting problems for the interpreters working the event: (1) the sometimes local expressions and politically incorrect speeches by the recipients of the award, which incidentally might not be suitable for some audiences depending on each country’s censorship legislation. Although much of this has been taken care of by the broadcast delay rule that exists in all live broadcasts originating from the United States (motivated by the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunctioning during a Super Bowl halftime show); and (2) The title, different from its original, that a film gets depending on the country and language where it will be shown.

Regarding the recipient’s speech I had one of these situations during the Golden Globes, not the Oscars, when Meryl Streep uttered a bad word. Fortunately for me, because of the delay policy, I did not have to worry about that rendition as the exclamation was edited out. But it was not always like that, and I can just imagine what our colleagues went through in the past when many actors used the Academy Awards as a channel to protest and criticize governments, policies, and philosophies; not to mention Jack Palance’s push-ups routine when he got the Oscar for his performance of “Curly” in “City Slickers.” The issue of different titles is tough, really tough. It was more difficult in the past before globalization because at that time many interpreters had not even watched the movies as they had not opened in their home countries yet, so they could not even “guess” the movie.  Titles like “The Sound of Music” that was renamed: “La novicia rebelde” in Mexico, or “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was named: “Atrapados sin salida” had to be tough to interpret when you had no idea what the movie was about. At least naming “Jaws” “Tiburón” was easier to figure out.  Now I invite you to share with all of us your personal experiences interpreting the Academy Awards, or to bring up other movie titles that were tough to translate. Finally, I would like to end this piece with a big thank you to all the interpreters who through the years have made it possible, and many times under very tough conditions, for the entire world to sit down in front of the TV set and for one evening every year root for their favorites based solely on one criteria: how they acted, directed, produced, or in any other category contributed their talents to the greatness of a film.

Are federally certified court interpreters any good? Maybe the NAJIT conference had the answer.

May 20, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

When you go to the doctor, retain an attorney, get on an airplane, or hire a plumber, you want them to be honest, good, and competent. So do I; So does society. That is why there are laws and regulations that require they go to school, get a professional license, and comply with continuing training and education.  Even when a person reaches a certain age, he has to go back periodically to the Motor Vehicle Division to be retested in order to continue to drive. Interpreters are no exception. Almost everywhere in the United States where a State offers a certification program, its interpreters must comply with continuing education requirements to keep their certification. Translators need to do the same to maintain their certification with the American Translators Association.  It sounds logical right? It makes sense.

Over the weekend the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) held its annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri. This is a yearly event and it is the only one of its kind. NAJIT is the only national professional association for judiciary interpreters in the United States. There are many state, regional, and local organizations that meet regularly and offer training and educational opportunities to their members, but no other one offers this service at the national level.  Every year the conference takes place at a different location and offers a variety of workshops and presentations so that all judiciary interpreters and translators can better themselves and meet their continuing education requirements with their respective states.

As the main gathering of judiciary interpreters, NAJIT attracts some of the key players in the industry, including the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. This is the federal agency that runs the federal court interpreter certification program.  Every year this presentation brings federally certified interpreters up to speed on everything that is happening in the federal interpreter program through a presentation and an open question and answer session with the government officials who know the subject. The presentation was held as scheduled and Mr. Javier Soler and Ms. Julie Meeks were there sharing statistics and information; answering questions, dissipating doubts. Unfortunately, and in my opinion very sadly, only a handful of federally certified court interpreters were there.  There are almost one thousand federally certified court interpreters in the United States and there were less than twenty in attendance! Other sessions held simultaneously in the other conference rooms were full of state-certified court interpreters who were attending the St. Louis conference because they wanted to improve their skills but also because they needed the continuing education credits for their respective State Administrative Office of the Courts.  Of course, there room was not that empty, there were many people without a federal certification who were attending Mr. Soler’s and Ms. Meeks’presentation because they wanted to learn.  And they did learn something that was discussed for the next two days in the hallways of the hotel where the conference took place: Federally certified court interpreters do not need continuing education credits to keep their certification current.  Those non-certified interpreters in attendance learned something they didn’t expect, tweets on this issue were the conference’s most re-tweeted throughout Europe where 2 other conferences were held on the same weekend. I knew this information. I have always known this information, but as I looked around a room with just a few colleagues, many non-certified attendees, and a tweet practically going viral, I understood why the federally certified court interpreters weren’t there, listening to the representative of the government agency that regulates what they do and travels half a continent every year to come to see them: No motivation. No need. The only court interpreters who were not attending the conference, and particularly this session were the federal interpreters. The only ones who do not need to comply with continuing education.

Let me explain: Unless an interpreter complies with the State of Colorado’s continuing education requirements, he cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of driving without a license and proof of car insurance in Pueblo Colorado. Unless an interpreter complies with the State of New Mexico’s continuing education requirements, she cannot interpret for a defendant who has been accused of duck-hunting without a permit in Estancia New Mexico.  A federally certified court interpreter who has never attended a class of ethics or a legal terminology presentation in his lifetime can interpret for a defendant who has been charged with running the biggest organized crime operation in the history of the United States.  The first two examples are misdemeanor charges that carry a fine, and under some circumstances a brief stay behind bars. The individual in the last example could be facing life in prison.

The judicial branch of the United States government is facing tough times; these are difficult days and they have to watch a smaller budget. So do the individual states.  It is very true that continuing education is expensive. It is expensive to provide the education and training. It is expensive to verify compliance and to keep a record… but there are ways…

There are surely other options, but these are my 2 cents:

Some states honor the continuing education provided by already well-established organizations and associations at the national, regional, state, and local levels. ATA does the same.  The cost to the federal government would be zero if they decided to honor credits obtained at a NAJIT, ATA, or other well-recognized conference in the United States, including some state conferences such as California’s Nebraska’s, New Mexico, and others. They could also honor credits from attending well-known prestigious international and foreign professional organizations such as FIT, FIL/OMT in Mexico, ASETRAD in Spain, and others; and they could also consider the classes taught at institutions like MIIS, University of Arizona, University of Maryland, and others.  All of the conferences and organizations above offer training and presentations on ethics, skills-building, terminology, practices, technology, and many more.

The reporting of the courses attended could be on an honor basis as many states do at this time. After all, federally certified court interpreters are professionals with moral solvency who periodically undergo criminal background checks. They are officers of the court!  These credits could be reported by answering and signing a form at the same time contractors renew their contract every year and staffers undergo their evaluation.  And to keep a central record, all interpreters would have to input this information into the system once a year by accessing and updating their personal information on the national court interpreter database system (NCID) that already exists and we access every time we change our address or modify our resume.

Federal interpreters are honest, professional and capable individuals who love their trade and take pride on their work. They would happily embrace this change and comply. After all, many are already doing it for their state and ATA certifications.  Please let me know your opinion and ideas on this crucial topic.

The Electoral College in the United States.

October 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my career I have noticed that every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters are faced with the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political.  Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else.  In fact, the Electoral College is one of those issues that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years.  Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.

Because we are once again approaching the final days of the presidential campaign and election day is three weeks away, I decided to put my legal background and my passion for history to work (I have a Law Degree)

Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on a Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for any of the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in the month of December to cast all electoral votes from that state, in favor of the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on that Tuesday in November.  In other words, we vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election.  After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state.  The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, in December the states get together in an Electoral College and each of them votes. This is the way we determine a winner. The states will each vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry.  We do not have proportional representation in the United States.

Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: We do not like ties because we associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins.  We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won the state of Florida by a very small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a smaller margin than George W. Bush.

I mentioned earlier that we like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, we are a country of fairness and justice with such diversity that the only way to achieve this goal is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal.  This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.

We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to the states of the United States of America (all fifty states and territories that make this country) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November.  The answer is as follows:  The constitution of the United States establishes that there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House.  When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population.    The American constitution establishes that there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, for a total of 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that particular state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.

As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives on the other hand, has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that all of them, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.

Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (425 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state, therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538.  Because of this totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes.  This is the reason why California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)

The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 separate countries who have an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December.  Because on November 6 of this year we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election or reelection of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.

Electoral votes by state Total: 538; majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270

state number of votes state number of votes state number of votes
Alabama 9 Kentucky 8 North Dakota 3
Alaska 3 Louisiana 9 Ohio 20
Arizona 10 Maine 4 Oklahoma 7
Arkansas 6 Maryland 10 Oregon 7
California 55 Massachusetts 12 Pennsylvania 21
Colorado 9 Michigan 17 Rhode Island 4
Connecticut 7 Minnesota 10 South Carolina 8
Delaware 3 Mississippi 6 South Dakota 3
District of Columbia 3 Missouri 11 Tennessee 11
Florida 27 Montana 3 Texas 34
Georgia 15 Nebraska 5 Utah 5
Hawaii 4 Nevada 5 Vermont 3
Idaho 4 New Hampshire 4 Virginia 13
Illinois 21 New Jersey 15 Washington 11
Indiana 11 New Mexico 5 West Virginia 5
Iowa 7 New York 31 Wisconsin 10
Kansas 6 North Carolina 15 Wyoming 3

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