In a presidential election that had the highest voter turnout in U.S. history, professor George Edwards had a unique and distinct perspective – the Indiana University McKinney School of Law professor was chosen as a 2020 presidential elector for Indiana.
Each of the state’s major parties nominated presidential electors to represent their respective presidential candidate for the Electoral College vote, which took place in Indiana’s Statehouse on Dec. 14
In addition to his recent election duties, Edwards, who founded the law school’s Program in International Human Rights Law and its Guantanamo Bay Military Commission Monitoring Project, had previously been chosen as a delegate to two presidential national conventions and has worked on political campaigns at all levels, including in primaries and caucuses in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana.
A faculty member since 1997, Edwards has seen his election work this year stretched beyond Election Day. He was on the ground in Georgia working on recount efforts, and he worked remotely on post-Election Day ballot-cure efforts in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.
As the states were certifying election results, we asked Edwards about his experience as a presidential elector and some of the frequently asked questions we’ve heard about elections and the Electoral College.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a presidential elector?
George Edwards: It is a great personal honor to be a presidential elector here in Indiana. It is a rare honor, and truly a privilege, that only a handful of people have in each state. I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to participate in democratic governance in this fashion.
I have long worked in the areas of civil and human rights and have been involved with politics for some time. The right to participate in governance – through voting and other civic-engagement exercise – has long been important to me.
Being a presidential elector aligns with my work at the IU McKinney School of Law.
My job responsibilities as a professor are threefold – I am meant to teach students in the classroom and through out-of-class, hands-on, experiential undertakings; to research, which includes law review articles and books; and to service the university, the state of Indiana, the U.S. and the international community.
My being a presidential elector most readily helps fulfill the service part of my law professor job, fulfilling civic duties, but is also related to the teaching and research aspects of my law professor job.
Q: The country is finalizing election results, and there has been significant discussion about presidential electors and the Electoral College. As a presidential elector, what can you share about the process?
GE: Back in the 1780s, when the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, decisions had to be made about how the President of the United States would be elected. We did not end up with a process of direct voting for the president.
For various reasons, it was decided that each eligible voter would be able to vote, but they would not vote directly for the president. Voters in each state would vote for people called presidential electors, and those presidential electors would then vote for the president, through a process known as the Electoral College.
Why no direct voting? One reason was that at the time, it was believed that everyday eligible voters would lack information about the candidates.
In the 1780s, there was no minute-by-minute national coverage of the daily activities of presidential candidates, and no 24-hour talking-head political pundits available at a click in every household, pocket or purse. Information about presidential candidates was not within easy reach of everyday eligible voters.
One option considered was to have either state legislators or Congress vote for president. Presumably, they would have had information about presidential candidates that was superior to the information available to everyday voters.
On Election Day today, no person votes for a presidential candidate, even though the names of the presidential candidates are on the ballot. All voters cast ballots for presidential electors, who in turn vote for the president on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
Q: Some of the public discourse after the election has debated abolishing the Electoral College. What are your thoughts on those discussions?
GE: Since the 1787 U.S. Constitution, there have been over 700 proposals to modify or abolish the Electoral College process. None of those proposals has become law.
But there has been a big push recently, given that twice in recent times the presidential candidate who won the popular vote did not become the president, with the Electoral College process facilitating the loss.
One reason the Electoral College process remains basically as it was 200 years ago is that it is built into the U.S. Constitution. A constitutional amendment would be required to change the Electoral College, and it would be very difficult now to pass such an amendment since it would require certain states to vote against their own actual or perceived interests.
However, the rigidity of the Electoral College process could be blunted by state legislatures, which could require state presidential electors to vote for the presidential candidate who won the popular vote nationwide. This would have the same result as a direct one-person, one-vote for president, though the Electoral College process would still be in place.
However, the rigidity of the Electoral College process could be blunted by state legislatures through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which requires each state to award all its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and D.C., and the candidate with the most votes nationwide would become president. To date, 15 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to this compact, that would come into effect only when and if the number of compact parties represent 270 electoral votes. The 15 states and DC represent 196 electoral votes, which is 73 percent of the 270 votes needed to give the compact legal force. The compact would have the same result as a direct one-person, one-vote for president, though the Electoral College process would still be in place.
Q: In the current Electoral College system, it takes 270 votes to declare a presidential winner. How does that factor into what you said about certain states that would have to “vote against their own actual or perceived interests”?
GE: The number of a state’s Electoral College votes comes from adding the number of its members of the U.S. House of Representatives (based on the state’s population) and the number of its U.S. senators (each state has only two regardless of population). Indiana has nine House of Representatives members and two senators, so Indiana has 11 Electoral College votes.
Wyoming, the least populated state, has 595,000 people, and California, the most populated state, has 39.5 million people. Wyoming and California each have two presidential electors based on the number of senators in each state. Some would suggest that states like Wyoming have a disproportionate amount of influence in the Electoral College because Wyoming’s 595,000 people are represented through two votes while California’s 39.5 million people are also represented by two votes, based on the number of senators in each state.
On the other hand, if we had voting strictly by population, some would argue that presidential candidates would focus their campaigns on large metropolitan areas with lots of people and ignore less densely populated areas, with the weight of influence shifting from the small-population areas like Wyoming to the large-population areas like California.
There are many more arguments for and against the Electoral College. These are just a couple.
Q: Do you have anything else you would like to say to our students, faculty, staff and graduates?
GE: Since we are in Indiana, I will cite a couple of statistics that relate to Indiana.
In the 2020 presidential election, Indiana was ranked 41st out of the 50 states in terms of eligible voters voting. Only 61.4 percent of eligible Indiana voters voted. That means that almost 40 percent of eligible Indiana voters did not vote and did not participate in the process of determining the President of the United States.
We live in a democracy. Democracies require voting. We all have the right to vote. That right is one I cherish and would never want to give up. Many past generations fought and died to protect the right to vote in the U.S. and in Indiana.
I encourage all eligible citizens of Indiana and the U.S. to vote in every election for which they are eligible. It is too important of a right to forgo.