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.

What is the meaning of the term “Founding Fathers”?

July 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Fourth of July the United States celebrates its 241st birthday. The founding of our country motivated me to write about a term that is frequently used but seldom understood: “The Founding Fathers”.

Many interpreters, U.S. and foreign born, including some who use the term at work, have told me that they believe they know who we are referring to when we speak of the “Founding Fathers”, but they ignore the meaning of such a phrase. They really do not understand what it truly means. The fact is they are not alone.  Let me explain:

Since the foundation of the United States, there has been a great deal of respect for those who made it possible to have a new nation free of tyranny and monarchy, where people would be recognized as equal and govern themselves according to their own collective will.  These remarkable individuals made a priceless contribution to the nation and were originally referred to as the “fathers” of the country.

These American heroes included those who participated in the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, those who signed the Articles of Confederation of 1781, and the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

Another equally recognized and honored group of American heroes are known as the “framers”. They include all delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the authors of The Federalist Papers. Of the 55 framers, only 39 were also signers of the Constitution.

The “Fathers” are called “Founding Fathers” for the first time by President Warren G. Harding in 1916. The phrase was catchy and stayed.

After 1916 the term “Founding Fathers” has been applied to all those who contributed to the birth of the nation. The original “Fathers”, the “Framers”, and many others who fought for independence on the battle field or at Independence Hall are now referred to as America’s “Founding Fathers”; and the list of “Founding Fathers” is constantly expanding to include all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or national origin, who contributed to the success of the Revolutionary War.

Presently, many authors set some of the “Founding Fathers” aside from the rest and are sometimes called the “Key Founding Fathers”. It is usually these individuals that historians, speech writers, journalists, and lay people have in mind when they speak of the “Founding Fathers”. Columbia University professor, and renowned historian, Richard Morris, identified the following American heroes as the “Key Founding Fathers”: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Washington were Presidents of the United States. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin were part of the 5-member Committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay authored The Federalist Papers.  Jay, Adams, and Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the War of Independence; and George Washington was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and presided over the Constitutional Convention.  Washington, just like Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, did not sign the Declaration of Independence.

Now you know who the “Founding Fathers” are and what the term really means.  Just like everything else in the United States of America, it is a group of men and women, some of them foreign born, with diverse ethnicity, who contributed their life’s work, and occasionally their own life, to create the country we honor today. We welcome your comments. Happy Fourth of July!

The languages spoken in the White House.

February 15, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Monday the United States observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.  Currently the United States is in the middle of a presidential political campaign and only two of all major candidates, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and former Governor Jeb Bush, also from the same state, are fluent in a second language: Spanish.

George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish.  According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States.  He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works.  This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin.  President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French.  President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English.  Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent.  President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency.  John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families.  I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here.  I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language. I now invite you to share with the rest of us any story you may know about the foreign languages spoken by a President or First Lady of the United States.

The American Founding Fathers and their Foreign Languages.

July 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

On this Fourth of July all Americans celebrate our independence.  We know that on this day we recognize the immense wisdom and unlimited courage of a group of men who lived in the same right place at the same right time.  Although most of us will spend the better part of the day watching baseball, having a hot dog, and attending some local fireworks tonight, I thought that this year it would be interesting to once again talk about a little known aspect of the founding fathers’ lives: Their knowledge of foreign languages.

It is undisputable that they were all bright, well-educated, and visionary heroes who crafted an idea and implemented a concept never attempted before: a country with no monarch where the people were in charge.  We have read about their political, diplomatic, scientific, and military qualities, about how gifted they were. It is time to review their knowledge of foreign languages.  George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat and well-known genius spoke English, French and Italian.   Our second President: John Adams spoke English, French and Latin. President James Madison spoke English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  James Monroe spoke English and French.

Although Samuel Adams and John Hancock did not speak any foreign languages, Hancock, the wealthiest of our founding fathers, and perhaps the most generous, founded a Professorship of Oriental Languages and Hebrew in Massachusetts.  All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language.

This may not be the most relevant aspect of a hero’s life, but it is a good way for a linguist to wish all of my friends and colleagues, together with their families, a happy Fourth of July!

The American Founding Fathers and their Foreign Languages.

July 4, 2012 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

On this Fourth of July all Americans celebrate our independence.  We know that on this day we recognize the immense wisdom and unlimited courage of a group of men who lived in the same right place at the same right time.  Although most of us will spend the better part of the day watching baseball, having a hot dog, and attending some local fireworks tonight, I thought it would be interesting to talk about a little known aspect of the founding fathers’ lives: Their knowledge of foreign languages.

It is undisputable that they were all bright, well-educated, and visionary heroes who crafted an idea and implemented a concept never attempted before: a country with no monarch where the people were in charge.  We have read about their political, diplomatic, scientific, and military qualities, about how gifted they were. It is time to review their knowledge of foreign languages.  George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat and well-known genius spoke English, French and Italian.   Our second President: John Adams spoke English, French and Latin. President James Madison spoke English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  James Monroe spoke English and French.

Although Samuel Adams and John Hancock did not speak any foreign languages, Hancock, the wealthiest of our founding fathers, and perhaps the most generous, founded a Professorship of Oriental Languages and Hebrew in Massachusetts.  All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language.

This may not be the most relevant aspect of a hero’s life, but it is a good way for a linguist to wish all of my friends and colleagues, together with their families, a happy Fourth of July!

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