You think you voted for president Nov. 4? You didn't vote for president at all.
Technically, you voted for a slate of electors. The Electoral College meets Monday in Des Moines and 50 other campuses. Quick Electoral College 101: Each state gets as many votes as U.S. representatives, plus two for the senators. These votes are not just tally marks; they're 538 real people, including seven Iowa Democrats, who will cast the only real presidential ballots. If recent history is a guide, there's about a 50-50 chance that someone won't vote the way they're expected to.
This year is already guaranteed to have one quirk. For the first time in almost a century, a state elected a slate of electors that's split by party. Maine and Nebraska choose electors by congressional district (the other 48 states and D.C. are winner-take-all), but this year for the first time that's more than just theoretical. Barack Obama won the Omaha-based Nebraska 2nd District, while John McCain carried the other two districts and the state. (Look for the Nebraska legislature, officially nonpartisan but Republican-dominated, to change that law soon.)
Several states have split their votes in recent years, but that's the human factor rather than election law. "Faithless electors" sometimes vote for someone other than the party nominee. Many states have passed laws prohibiting electors from voting other than the way they're pledged, but Iowa has not. Those laws haven't been constitutionally tested yet, and no faithless elector's vote has ever been overturned.
Faithless electors usually make a big deal out of their protest votes:
But no one stepped forward to own up in Minnesota in 2004, when one elector voted for John Edwards for both president and vice president. The consensus was that someone simply screwed up their ballot.
The last state that actually elected a split slate of electors from two parties was California in 1912. Back then, voters in some states cast ballots for each individual elector, and California was so close that the top two Woodrow Wilson electors did better than the bottom two on Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose slate. That happened a few times in the 19th century, but as the practice of voting on each elector declined, those outcomes disappeared.
Alabama split its votes in 1960, but that was due to the nature of its Democratic elector slate. Six electors were segregationists who wound up voting for conservative Democrat Harry Byrd, and five were national party Kennedy loyalists. But the entire Democratic slate of electors won. (Alabama was one of the last states to vote for each elector. The Kennedy loyalists ran a few thousand votes behind the segregationists, but well ahead of the Republicans.)
The segregation era produced more than its share of weird electoral college results: faithless electors in 1948, 1956, 1960 and 1968, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace's strategy of trying to throw elections into the House of Representatives in `48 and `68, Mississippi's winning slate of unpledged electors inf 1960, and incumbent presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson being kept off the ballot in Alabama.
Of course, the inherent flaw of the electoral college reared its head in 2000. Leave the discussion of hanging chads, butterfly ballots and Ralph Nader aside; no matter what the Florida scenario, Al Gore won more popular votes.
2000 took electoral college reform off the table through the Bush years because it became a partisan issue. To amend the Constitution, you need a consensus-level supermajority: two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states. Once an issue becomes partisan, like the Equal Rights Amendment did in the late `70s, it drops below that supermajority. Arguing against the Electoral College drew attention to Bush's popular vote loss in 2000, and thus it became a partisan matter.
In recent years, a few states have tried to do an end-around on the constitutional amendment process by passing the National Popular Vote plan. States that pass the plan agree to cast all the state's electoral votes for the national popular vote winner, but the plan only takes effect when 270 electoral votes worth of states pass it. So far, four states with 50 electoral votes (Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, and New Jersey) have passed the plan. Iowa City state Sen. Joe Bolkcom introduced the plan in the last legislative session.
In Iowa, candidates for elector are nominated at state party conventions: one from each congressional district and two at the state level. Invariably, during conventions, these people are referred to as "electors," which is wrong because you're not an elector until your candidate carries the state. You're a "candidate for elector."
Iowa's 2008 electors, all Democrats, are:
1st District: Elwood Thompson, Waterloo
2nd District: Slayton Thompson, Cedar Rapids
3rd District: Kathleen O'Leary, Des Moines
4th District: Jon Heitland, Iowa Falls
5th District: Dennis Ryan, Onawa
At large: Joe Judge, Albia
At large: Audrey Linville, Davenport
There are no absentee ballots in the electoral college. Mid-December ice storms have kept electors away and people have been replaced at the last second, which seems kind of a cavalier way to treat a constitutional responsibility.
So, with the outcome certain, what will we see Monday? Did a stealth Ron Paul supporter sneak onto an elector slate somewhere? Will a die-hard PUMA cast the ultimate protest vote for Hillary Clinton? Will some Republican with nothing to lose cast a vote for their 2012 favorite? And will Americans ever decide that it's time to just vote directly for president?