What is the Electoral College in the United States?

October 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

Every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters face the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political. This time, no doubt because of the American president, more friends and colleagues from the United States and abroad have contacted me than ever before. 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.  The Electoral College is one issue 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, where the Biden and Trump campaigns are dominating broadcasts and headlines, 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 in a unique election cycle, and Election Day will be here before we know it, I decided to humbly put my legal background and my passion for history to work to benefit the interpreter community. I do not intend to defend the American system, or convince anybody of its benefits. I am only providing historical, political, and legal facts so we can understand such a complicated system in a way that if needed, our rendition from the physical or virtual booth is a little easier. This is not a political post, and it will not turn into one.

Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on the first Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for 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 December to cast the electoral votes from that state, in the case of 48 states, for the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on Election Day. Other two states, since 1972 Maine and starting in 1992 Nebraska, allocate their electoral votes in a semi proportional manner. The two state’s electoral votes representing the two senators from that state, are assigned to the plurality winner of that state’s popular vote, and the other electoral votes that correspond to that state are given to the plurality winner in the popular vote in each of the state’s U.S. House of Representatives district. Maine has 4 electoral votes and Nebraska has 5. This means 2 and 3 electoral votes respectively will go to the candidate who wins that district, even if the candidate does not win a plurality of the popular vote statewide.

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, the states get together in December as an Electoral College and each vote. This is the way we determine a winner. Each state will vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry and the mandate of its state’s constitution.  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: Americans dislike ties because they 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 in that state (except for Maine and Nebraska above) 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 Florida by a 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 margin smaller than George W. Bush. In recent years, another two presidents got to the White House without getting a majority of the popular vote: Bill Clinton twice, and president, Donald J. Trump. According to all presidential polls, if president Trump was reelected, he would go back to the White House after winning the electoral college, but losing the popular vote.

The electoral college was born to have a duly elected democratic government that would replace the monarchy Americans endured in colonial times. The state of communications and the educational level of the American population were such, that it was thought unwise to hold a direct presidential election where the winner of the popular vote would become president of the United States. Access to newly founded Washington, D.C., surrounded by swamps and, for Eighteenth Century standards, far away from most thirteen original states made it uncertain that all states would get to vote in a presidential election. Because only a handful of representatives from each state would go to the capital to cast that state’s votes for president, it was decided that only land holder white men would have a right to vote for these electors. It was decided to exclude white men with no land as they had no vested interest in the election; women were considered unprepared to make such a decision, blacks were slaves and deprived of human rights, including political ones, and Native Americans and other minorities were not considered citizens of the United States, and ineligible to vote.  Eventually, after a Civil War a century later, and several social movements a century after the War, all men and women born in the U.S., or naturalized American citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin, successfully claimed their human right to vote. The American population of the United States territories are nationals of the U.S., and they can vote in a presidential election if they are residing in the 50 states or the District of Columbia.

I mentioned earlier that most Americans like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, the country’s political and legal systems rest on a foundation of fairness and justice. With a nation as diverse as the current United States, a majority believes the only way to maintain these principles 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 all 50 states of the United States of America (and the District of Columbia) 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 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 there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, currently that is 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that 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 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 they all, 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 (435 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 these 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 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 countries with an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December.  Because on the first Tuesday in November, or shortly after that, we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election 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

I now invite your comments on the way presidential elections are conducted in the United States, but please do not send political postings or partisan attacks. They will not be posted. This is a blog for interpreters and translators, not for political debate.

Some interpreters’ unprofessional conduct on social media.

January 10, 2019 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Social media interaction can be a good thing for our professional practice. It helps us to be up to date in current events that affect our work; learn about interpreting, languages, and many other topics relevant to what we do; and it comes in handy to ask for help when stuck on a word or term. Unfortunately, social media can be a two-edged sword when used irresponsibly. It can hurt us individually or as a profession, especially when we, as interpreters, attack or criticize a colleague without actual knowledge of the subject and circumstances that surrounded the event or rendition we are ready to criticize.

I am saddened by colleagues who have never interpreted for a live event on TV broadcasted to millions, and yet they post on line uneducated remarks criticizing the interpreter for not “interpreting everything”, showing the world they have no idea of how broadcast interpreting works as far as screen timing and the expectations of the target audience. They do not stop to think that doing the rendition the way they suggest would take the interpreter into a different, unrelated image on the screen or even a commercial.

Frankly, I am tired of social media posts in chatrooms where ignorant interpreters attack a conference interpreter for not interpreting everything; a court interpreter for interpreting everything, (even the obvious and redundant), and doing it very fast; healthcare and community interpreters for doing the necessary advocacy so their client understands the message, and even the military interpreter for not being neutral and impartial.

At the end of November of last year, we lived through one massive attack and “opinions” by some colleagues who, despite not being well-versed on diplomatic interpreting, filled the digital channels with bizarre remarks.

The incident that triggered such social media activity were the November 30, 2018 remarks by president Trump of the United States, (who had traveled to Argentina to attend the G-20 Summit) and President Macri of Argentina in Buenos Aires. They both appeared before journalists from their respective countries and elsewhere. President Macri spoke first and welcomed Trump. Next, president Trump spoke, but at the beginning of his remarks, while holding a receiver in his hand, he looked at president Macri and said: “…I think I understood you better in your language than I did on this. But that’s okay…” Next, president Trump dropped the receiver he had been given for the interpretation of Macri’s remarks. President Trump’s comment was in English, but its interpretation into Spanish was heard by those present in the hall, and by everyone watching TV in Spanish in Argentina and the United States.

Right after this joint appearance by the presidents, interpreter forums, chatrooms, and tweeter accounts, filled up with strange comments such as: “…I wonder who interpreted for Trump. The rendition was so bad he said he understood better without it…” “…Trump was so mad at the interpreter he tossed the equipment…” “…the interpreter was so brave, she even interpreted the part when Trump said he didn’t understand her…” “…it wasn’t the interpretation, he said that because (Trump) hates Hispanics…” “…Trump did not like that the interpreter had an Argentinian accent, that is why he did it…” Also, the comments we see all the time: “…I wonder who picked those interpreters…” “…I bet you the interpreter isn’t certified…” “…Macri is so incompetent that he hired bad interpreters for his meeting with Trump…”

I watched the joint appearance on TV and I saw something very different from what these colleagues saw: It was obvious from the beginning that president Trump was handed a receiver at the last moment. They were already on stage and president Macri had started his welcoming speech. Trump got the receiver with no explanation as to how it works. He seemed unfamiliar with the receiver. On TV it looked different from the 2-part earpiece-receiver we use most of the time. This one looked like a one-piece receiver you use like a telephone receiver. At one point, it looked like president Trump was trying to adjust something on the receiver: maybe the volume, perhaps the channel. The video shows a lady giving him the receiver in a hurry. It does not show if somebody tested it before handing it to Trump. Maybe he was just adjusting the volume and he accidentally changed the channel on the receiver, or maybe the channel was wrong from the moment the receiver was handed to him. There is no way to tell for sure, but from the first time I saw it live, I realized there was something wrong with the equipment, not the rendition. I immediately answered all emails, tweets, and messages I got from many colleagues all over, sharing what I just said above. I know the two interpreters who worked the event, and they are the best of the best. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) came to the same conclusion. On December 3, 2018 they issued a statement in both, English and Spanish:

                                                                       AIIC statement in Spanish

 

AIIC statement in English

Unfortunate that people who did not even watch the live broadcast or the full video were criticizing the interpreters when this was a case of a technical problem. It was disheartening to read on public professional forums how people criticized Trump because he did not like Hispanics, or the Argentinian accent of the interpreter. Before attacking and criticizing, these colleagues should learn the basics of diplomatic interpreting: President Trump was listening in English the rendition by president Macri’s magnificent interpreter, who is a male and speaks with a British (not Argentinean) accent. President Trump’s fabulous interpreter, a female who speaks Spanish with an Argentinean accent, interprets into Spanish for President Macri. Your interpreter interprets what you say, not what the others say. That is the protocol in diplomatic interpreting. The words in Spanish these misinformed interpreters heard during the broadcast when Trump states he understood Macri better in “his language” were by Trump’s interpreter interpreting Trumps remarks about the equipment during president Macri’s words interpreted into English for Trump by Macri’s male interpreter. As for who hired these interpreters; all experienced interpreters, diplomatic or not, know that presidential (and diplomatic interpreters in general) are not retained as an interpreter is hired to do a court hearing or a parent-teacher conference. These interpreters have ample experience in conference and diplomatic interpreting, they have met academic and skill requirements, passed tests and evaluations, and have been granted security clearance. Usually they are full-time staff interpreters working for their government, or very experienced, trusted independent contractors with a long history of assignments and missions working for their government. Court certification is irrelevant for this work, so the comments about that issue merit no further elaboration. Finally, just like presidents have little to do with the direct supervision of a state dinner, they have even less involvement on the interpreting equipment used for a particular event. These are the links to the English and Spanish versions of the video that clearly depict what I just described: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=YouTube.be&v=9qN2Cf0FnP8

https://YouTube.be/PWPom4j8H8Y This is the link to the White House transcript of the full remarks by both presidents: https://whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-president-macri-argentine-republic-bilateral-meeting/

Dear friends and colleagues, these attacks, criticism, comments, etcetera, hurt our profession. Few things are more damaging to a profession than its own members’ attacks out in the open for all to see. This happens when some interpreters use social media either to criticize just because they enjoy doing so, or to advance their own career and reputation by pointing out things they would never do. These unfortunate remarks are always harmful, but when uttered with no knowledge or foundation, as it was in this case and many others, it is even worse. The interpreters who follow this practice and post all kinds of irresponsible comments put in evidence their lack of professionalism and build and invisible wall around them, isolating them from any top-tier interpreters and their clients.

The final point I wanted to make concerns mixing our own personal lives and political opinions with our professional image as interpreters. Few people in the world are as polarizing as Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri. Some people love them, others cannot stand them. I have no problem with that. The thing that concerns me is that many interpreters in Argentina and the United States made this a political issue. It always worries me when an interpreter pours his or her political opinions in a professional forum, chatroom, or tweet. As professionals we should separate them both. Please make all political statements and give all political opinions you want, but do it in your personal Tweeter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts; Do not post it in your professional social media or in any group forums or chatrooms you belong to, more so if they are open to the public. We do not know what our clients’ political opinions are, as we do not need to; even if our clients’ opinions match ours, we do not know how they feel about hiring an interpreter so opinionated in social media.

Because we do not know how an agency, or even other interpreters feel about our opinions, or about voicing them in professional forums, we should keep them private, in our personal social media. I occasionally post some funny stuff about topics and issues I disagree with, but I do it in my personal social media. I have never issued a political opinion for or against anything in my professional social media as I consider it unprofessional. I have these tools to educate, inform, promote, and influence issues related to the profession. That is why I limit myself to criticize and expose government entities, multinational agencies, bad practices, and legislation that hurts or could hurt the profession and my fellow interpreter and translator colleagues. That is valid in a professional forum. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this important issue.

Las Posadas: Christmas Season and Terminology of Mexico. The Professional Interpreter blog.

December 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

It has been a great year full of professional activity. I have been honored with your preference for this interpreting blog where we explore all facets of our craft and other disciplines and events that help us improve our services while advancing the profession. We will continue to tackle these issues in 2017, but for the next two weeks I will try to get into the Christmas/End of the Year spirit with a couple of posts that I hope contribute to the season’s mood while providing some useful information at the same time.  Today, I will go back to a theme that seems to be quite popular every year: “Las Posadas”.

Every year when December comes along I find myself answering questions from friends and acquaintances about how Latin America, and specifically Mexico, celebrate the holiday season. American friends who want to organize a celebration for their children, school teachers who are staging the festivities for the school play, community center activists who want to celebrate the season with a cultural event, come to me to learn about the traditions, food, celebrations, and vocabulary.  Because this year has not been different, I decided to repost one of my most popular articles where I write about the most Mexican of these traditions: The posada. In Mexico the fiestas decembrinas begin unofficially with the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and last through January 6 when they celebrate the Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) but the festivities are in full swing with the beginning of the posadas. Mexicans celebrate the posadas every evening from December 16 to 24. They actually started as a Catholic novenario (nine days of religious observance based on the nine months that María carried Jesus in her womb). The posadas re-enact Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter; the word posada means “lodging” in Spanish.

Traditionally, a party is held each night in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the house with children who sometimes dress as shepherds, angels and even Mary and Joseph. An “angel” leads the procession, followed by Mary and Joseph or by participants carrying their images. The adults follow, carrying lighted candles.

The “pilgrims” sing a litany asking for shelter, and the hosts sing a reply, finally opening the doors to the guests and offering Mexican traditional Christmas dishes such as hot ponche, a drink of tejocotes (a Mexican fruit that tastes like an apricot/apple) guavas, oranges, sugar cane, and cinnamon mixed and simmered in hot water and served with rum or brandy; fried crisp Mexican cookies known as buñuelos, steaming hot tamales, a staple of the Mexican diet since pre-Hispanic days, and other festive foods.

Spanish priest and chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún observed that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamales: tamales with amaranth leaves for the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, tamales with beans and chiles for the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca, shrimp and chile sauce tamales for the ancient deity Huehuetéotl. Besides tamales stuffed with turkey meat, beans and chiles, the Aztecs used what they harvested from the shores of Lake Texcoco, including fish and frogs, to fill tamales. Sahagún tells us that pocket-gopher tamales were “always tasty, savory, of very pleasing odor.” The Maya also produced artistic, elaborate tamales; toasted squash seeds and flowers, meat, fish, fowl, and beans were all used as fillings. Deer meat, especially the heart, was favored for special offerings. Besides being steamed, tamales were roasted on the comal (grill) or baked in the pib, or pit oven.

Finally, after everybody ate and had fun, the party ends with a piñata. In some places, the last posada, held on Christmas Eve (December 24) is followed by midnight Catholic mass, a tradition that lives on in countless Mexican towns.

These are the lyrics to the traditional posada litany.  I have included the original Spanish lyrics and a widely accepted English translation that rimes with the tune. Now you can sing the litany in Spanish or in English at your next posada, or even better, have a bilingual posada and sing the litany twice.

                        Español English
Outside Singers Inside Response Outside Singers Inside Response
En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.
Aquí no es mesón,
sigan adelante
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.
In the name of Heaven
I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.
This is not an inn
so keep going
I cannot open
you may be a rogue.
No seas inhumano,
tennos caridad,
que el Dios de los cielos
te lo premiará.
Ya se pueden ir
y no molestar
porque si me enfado
os voy a apalear.
Don’t be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
You can go on now
and don’t bother us,
because if I become annoyed
I’ll give you a trashing.
Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret,
yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.
No me importa el nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues que yo les digo
que no hemos de abrir.
We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
I don’t care about your name:
Let me sleep,
because I already told you
we shall not open up.
Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.
Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?
I’m asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
Well, if it’s a queen
who solicits it,
why is it at night
that she travels so alone?
Mi esposa es María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.
My wife is Mary
She’s the Queen of Heaven
and she’s going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.
Dios pague, señores,
vuestra caridad,
y que os colme el cielo
de felicidad.
¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la Virgen pura.
La hermosa María!
May God pay, gentle folks,
your charity,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
Blessed is the house
that shelters this day
the pure Virgin,
the beautiful Mary.
Upon opening the doors at the final stop, the tune changes, the pilgrims enter, and all sing these final verses in unison:
Entren, Santos Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón.
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.
Oh, peregrina agraciada, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis posada. Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.
Humildes peregrinos
Jesús, María y José,
el alma doy por ellos,
mi corazón también.
Humble pilgrims,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
Cantemos con alegría
todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María
nos vinieron a honrar.
Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, and thank you for reading this blog during 2016.  Please feel free to contribute to this post by sharing some holiday traditions from your home countries.

Christmas traditions in the United States.

December 22, 2015 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations that are observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now start to live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you during this time when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to make it very clear that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I am very aware of the fact that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. Please understand that this post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now referred to as the holiday season in an effort to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and at the latest on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide some heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents that were previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, a variety of desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet egg nog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one of these days. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  Happy holidays to all!

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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