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The Electoral College and Politics

Bill and his guests discuss the Electoral College. Scheduled guests: Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville; Joshua Douglas, law professor at the University of Kentucky; Anne Cizmar, government professor at Eastern Kentucky University; and John Heyrman, political science professor at Berea College.
Season 23 Episode 33 Length 56:33 Premiere: 08/15/16


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis of major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw.

For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions in real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form. Viewers with questions and comments may send an email to or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 800-494-7605.

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Renee Shaw is the Director of Public Affairs and Moderator at KET, currently serving as host of KET’s weeknight public affairs program Kentucky Edition, the signature public policy discussion series Kentucky Tonight, the weekly interview series Connections, Election coverage and KET Forums.

Since 2001, Renee has been the producing force behind KET’s legislative coverage that has been recognized by the Kentucky Associated Press and the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include a daily news and information program, Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, townhall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

Renee has also earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS), with three regional Emmy awards. In 2023, she was inducted into the Silver Circle of the NATAS, one of the industry’s highest honors recognizing television professionals with distinguished service in broadcast journalism for 25 years or more.  

Already an inductee into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame (2017), Renee expands her hall of fame status with induction into Western Kentucky University’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni in November of 2023.  

In February of 2023, Renee graced the front cover of Kentucky Living magazine with a centerfold story on her 25 years of service at KET and even longer commitment to public media journalism. 

In addition to honors from various educational, civic, and community organizations, Renee has earned top honors from the Associated Press and has twice been recognized by Mental Health America for her years-long dedication to examining issues of mental health and opioid addiction.  

In 2022, she was honored with Women Leading Kentucky’s Governor Martha Layne Collins Leadership Award recognizing her trailblazing path and inspiring dedication to elevating important issues across Kentucky.   

In 2018, she co-produced and moderated a 6-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. 

She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; and was recognized as a “Kentucky Trailblazer” by the University of Kentucky Martin School of Public Policy and Administration during the Wendell H. Ford Lecture Series in 2019. That same year, Shaw was named by The Kentucky Gazette’s inaugural recognition of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government.  

Renee was bestowed the 2021 Berea College Service Award and was named “Unapologetic Woman of the Year” in 2021 by the Community Action Council.   

In 2015, she received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault & human trafficking. In 2014, Renee was awarded the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the KY Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform. Two Kentucky governors, Republican Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Andy Beshear, have commissioned Renee as a Kentucky Colonel for noteworthy accomplishments and service to community, state, and nation.  

A former adjunct media writing professor at Georgetown College, Renee traveled to Cambodia in 2003 to help train emerging journalists on reporting on critical health issues as part of an exchange program at Western Kentucky University. And, she has enterprised stories for national media outlets, the PBS NewsHour and Public News Service.  

Shaw is a 2007 graduate of Leadership Kentucky, a board member of CASA of Lexington, and a longtime member of the Frankfort/Lexington Chapter of The Links Incorporated, an international, not-for-profit organization of women of color committed to volunteer service. She has served on the boards of the Kentucky Historical Society, Lexington Minority Business Expo, and the Board of Governors for the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. 

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

The Electoral College’s Impact on U.S. Politics

It has no classrooms or campus. It doesn’t offer degrees or diplomas. It doesn’t even have a football or basketball team.

Yet this uniquely American institution has touched the lives of every citizen for more than two centuries.

It’s the Electoral College, and this year, as it does every four years, it will select the person who will be the next President of the United States.

But how the Electoral College exactly works and why we even have it remains a mystery to many voters. To help answer those questions, Kentucky Tonight convened a panel of political and legal scholars to explain the history and mechanics of the Electoral College.

A Last-minute Compromise
The Electoral College was formed during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when delegates from 12 of the 13 states convened in Philadelphia to develop a framework for the new American government. With all that they had to accomplish, establishing presidential elections was not a high priority for the 70 delegates.

“How to choose the president was one of the last things decided at the Constitutional Convention,” says Berea College political science professor John Heyrman. “They were really not sure how to choose presidents for a long time. This was sort of a last-minute, last-ditch compromise.”

At issue was who would actually elect the chief executive. The options the delegates considered included having Congress select the president or having qualified citizens elect their leader. Centre College Assistant Professor of Politics Benjamin Knoll says that the notion of a popular vote was a non-starter among the delegates because they were skeptical that Americans had sufficient wisdom to select their president. Having Congress make the choice was also problematic because of concerns about separation of government powers.

The delegates arrived at a compromise, whereby a panel of electors representing each state would convene to select a new president. The number of electors from a given state would equal the members of Congress from that state. Kentucky, for example, now has six congressmen and two senators, so the commonwealth has eight electors. Originally, most states charged their legislatures with selecting individuals to serve as electors.

Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, says the goal was to have qualified, knowledgeable people engage in lengthy debates about the candidates before making their final selection.

“The founders really wanted us to have a deliberative republic rather than a simple majoritarian, populist sort of democracy,” says Gregg.

From the beginning, though, the constitutional language about electors had its flaws. For example, it called for the candidate who received the majority of electoral votes to become the president, while the runner-up became vice president. That meant candidates from competing parties who might be fierce opponents could occupy the two executive positions.

“I think at the time, no one really thought it was the best method ever invented,” says Anne Cizmar, government professor at Eastern Kentucky University. “But really it was the only method they could find that would be practical.”

Lose the Vote, Win the Election
The electoral system continued to evolve over the years. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution, proposed in 1803 and ratified the next year, clarifies some of the issues with the original language.

Today, party apparatuses in each state select a slate of electors. Gary Gregg says they are generally people who have proven their loyalty and their financial commitment to their party.

The party representing the candidate who wins that particular state on Election Day will empanel their electors to cast their votes for that candidate. So, voters aren’t actually picking a president; in essence, they select the electors who will vote for the presidential candidate who won their state. Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Nebraska and Maine apportion their votes based on which candidate wins each congressional district.

This year, electors in each state and the District of Columbia will meet on Dec. 19 to cast their ballots for president and vice president. Then, on Jan. 6, 2017, a joint session of Congress convenes to tally the electoral votes.

To be declared the winner, a presidential candidate must receive 270 of the available 538 electoral votes. Since the popular vote is tallied separately from the electoral vote, a presidential candidate can be declared the winner even though that candidate lost the popular vote. That scenario has occurred only a few times in American history, most recently in the 2000 election. George W. Bush garnered 271 electoral votes, but Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 ballots.

“Ultimately, the Electoral College is undemocratic,” says Joshua Douglas, law professor at the University of Kentucky. “Someone can not win the majority of the votes and yet become president… [If] we define democracy as majority rule and consent of the governed, then you have the possibility of that not occurring.”

Douglas argues that a switch to a national popular vote for electing presidents would be a better, more equitable system. Since a constitutional amendment to ditch the Electoral College system is unlikely, he says popular vote advocates have introduced legislation in all 50 states that offers a possible alternative.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact says that a state would cast its electoral votes for the candidate who wins the national election, not that particular state’s vote tally. Douglas says that would ensure that the candidate who wins the popular vote would also win the electoral vote and therefore become president.

So far only 11 mostly Democratic-leaning states have approved the compact. Douglas says he believes red states would quickly embrace the idea if a GOP presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the election.

Electoral Nightmares
The notion of a national popular vote isn’t popular with everyone. Gregg says he worries that candidates, especially Democratic ones, would focus all of their attention on the nation’s biggest cities, where they could more efficiently secure a substantial number of votes. He says smaller or more rural swing states that now get attention from candidates seeking electoral votes would become largely irrelevant in a popular vote system. Cizmar says she fears a popular vote system with a crowded presidential field could result in the winning candidate not getting enough votes to claim a mandate to govern.

A politician who wins the presidency but loses the popular vote isn’t the only troubling scenario possible under the electoral structure. Centre College political scientist Benjamin Knoll says that there is no federal law that requires state electors to actually vote for their pledged candidates. So in a closely contested election, a change of heart by one or two electors could alter the outcome of a presidential race.

Since electoral votes are not cast until a month after Election Day, Gregg wonders what would happen if some damning information came out about the winner in the interim. He says it’s conceivable the disclosure could prove so disturbing that electors could decide to select the second-place finisher.

Then there’s the possibility of a double or even a triple tie. If the electoral vote ends in a 269 to 269 draw, the U.S. House Representatives would decide the presidential election while the U.S. Senate would select the vice president. In the House, each state delegation is given one vote to cast, so it’s possible that the chamber could split 25 to 25. In that case, the Senate-selected vice presidential winner would serve as president.

But what if the Senate also deadlocked? The Constitution says each senator gets one vote, so that body could come to an impasse on selecting a vice president. If that were to occur, then the Speaker of the House would serve as acting president.

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