Millions of Marylanders are expected to cast their ballots by mail and in-person for the upcoming general election ― but they won’t be the ones who ultimately select the next president. Instead, their votes will go toward electors who choose the next leader of the United States.
Under the country’s Electoral College, most states select electors through a popular vote in a winner-take-all system. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, the Electoral College consists of 538 members ― one for each U.S. senator and representative, and three for the District of Columbia.
Maryland will have 10 electors in the upcoming election. Some of the state’s electors from previous election cycles told Maryland Matters about the unique pressures and experience of casting a direct vote for the president.
Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), who was an elector in 2012, described participating in the Electoral College as a “wonderful experience” and a massive responsibility. She said that responsibility will be accentuated for electors during this cycle.
“It’s a big responsibility, one that will have consequences for generations to come,” Peña-Melnyk said. “And that it’s really, for me, about life and death.”
Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery County), who was also an elector in 2012, said casting his vote was a surreal experience.
“On the one hand, it seems very perfunctory,” Barve said. “But then you have to shake yourself and realize that no, actually I’m one voting for president and everybody else went through a perfunctory process of voting, that I cast the real ballot. That’s both an awesome but a little freaky thing to consider.”
Barve said he didn’t feel pressure when casting his ballot for President Obama, since he was simply following through with Maryland voters’ preference. “Faithless electors,” those who vote for a different candidate despite the majority vote in their state, are relatively rare.
Whether to keep the centuries-old Electoral College has been a topic of fierce debate across the country in recent years, particularly after Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. Clinton won the national popular vote, but lost the electoral college to Republican Donald Trump.
A recent Gallup poll showed that 61% of Americans want to abolish the Electoral College, although the issue has divided the country along party lines: While 89% of Democrats and 68% of independents want to get rid of the Electoral College, just 23% of Republicans do.
Of course, abolishing the Electoral College would be impossible before the Nov. 3 election. Doing so would require a Constitutional amendment ― a stringent and lengthy process that requires ratification from 38 of 50 state legislatures.
Maryland has been at the forefront in a nationwide battle to shift away from the Electoral College, and in 2007 signed onto the The National Popular Vote interstate compact, in which states pledge to give their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
The interstate compact won’t go into effect until it’s enacted by enough states to hold a majority of electoral votes, or 270 votes of 538. It’s already been enacted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, amounting to a total of 196 electoral votes.
Barve said Maryland, which generally votes Democratic, has traditionally been ignored in nationwide elections. He’s not entirely opposed to the Electoral College, but thinks it needs to be at least reformed to be more proportional to state populations ― for instance, if it was strictly tied to each state’s number of U.S. Representatives. Right now, states also have electors based on the U.S. Senate, which substantially increases the influence of smaller states.
“It’s an 18th century mechanism,” he said. “It’s really not well-suited the way it’s composed right now.”
Del. Courtney Watson (D-Howard) said it’s a “valid concern” that Maryland is ignored in presidential elections, and pointed to a lack of visits by candidates. Watson, who was an elector in 2016, said she thinks a lack of presidential visits means that Maryland relies on its federal delegation for a voice in elections.
“Our federal delegation does a really good job of trying to get candidates to focus on Maryland and to bring if not the candidate, then surrogates.” Watson said.
Peña-Melnyk said that the debate around the Electoral College will have to wait until after the election, and emphasized the importance of regular voters participating in the Nov. 3 election.
“I feel that our dignity is on the ballot, I feel as a person of color, a Black Latina, this is a monumental election for not just the community as a whole, but also for people of color, for women, for the disabled, for young people,” she said. “I think that to be able to cast a vote and make a difference, to save our democracy, is monumental.”