The Electoral College in the United States is one of the most unique institutions of American democracy, albeit a perplexing one. Its 538 members, drawing from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, meet every four years for only one purpose: to select the President and Vice President of the United States of America. To help explain what this electoral body does and how it functions, we interviewed Illinois State Senator Omar Aquino (D). Senator Aquino was selected as one of the Electoral College’s 20 members from the State of Illinois. We spoke with him shortly before he cast his vote in December of 2020.
Senator Omar Aquino meeting President Barack Obama at the White House.
Daniel Pogorzelski, Before we dive into talking about the Electoral College, tell us about yourself and why you decided to get involved in government and politics.
Senator Omar Aquino, After I graduated from college I worked as a caseworker for low-income seniors that needed various assistance from our state such as home care services and meals. I witnessed firsthand how the policy changes that were implemented at the state level to save money would negatively affect their quality of life. It made me understand how policymakers have the ability to affect the everyday lives of people in the United States. This inspired me to run for public office. We need representation that will understand the struggles that working-class people face in their daily lives.
Like you, President Barack Obama served in the Illinois Senate. Is his legacy celebrated in the State Capitol?
It definitely is. President Obama and the work of his administration are a source of great pride for the “Land of Lincoln” and its lawmakers. Just this year the Illinois General Assembly made the decision to replace a portrait of Stephen Douglas, a controversial US Senator representing Illinois just before the US Civil War, with a portrait of Barack Obama. It is a fitting commemoration of Obama’s public service on behalf of the citizens of the State of Illinois.
You have been to the White House before. How did that come to pass?
In late 2016, before President Barack Obama left the White House, he invited a number of elected officials and community members that played a pivotal role in his early political career. I attended the reception with David Feller, a well-known political operative from Chicago who worked alongside Obama for almost a decade, where we both met with the 44th president and enjoyed an engaging conversation. It was an incredible experience, an honor that was further distinguished by virtue that the president not only came from Chicago, but also served in the same legislative body that I myself currently serve.
Moving on to the main topic of our interview, give us some background on the Electoral College, its history, and how it functions.
In 1787 our country’s founding fathers held a constitutional convention during which one of the hardest debates to resolve would be how we would elect our nation’s president. After months of going back and forth with various solutions, the founding fathers settled on a compromise known as the Electoral College. This system calls for the creation, every four years, of a temporary group of electors equal to the total number of representatives in Congress. It is these electors, and not the American people, who vote for the president. In modern elections, the first candidate to get 270 of the 538 total electoral votes wins the White House.
Where is the Electoral College mentioned in the US Constitution?
The Electoral College can be found mentioned in Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution as well as the 12th Amendment. These sections of our constitution allow for the creation of the Electoral College and give the states the authority to decide how their presidential electors will be chosen.
Electoral map 2020
Electoral votes, out of 538, allocated to each state and the District of Columbia for presidential elections held in 2012, 2016 and 2020, based on congressional representation, which depends on population data from the 2010 Census. Every jurisdiction is entitled to at least 3. In Maine (upper-right) and Nebraska (center), the small circled numbers indicate congressional districts. These are the only two states to use a district method for some of their allocated electors, instead of a complete winner-takes-all.
How did you come to be appointed as an elector in the Electoral College?
Congressman Jesus Garcia of Illinois was appointed an elector by the Democratic Party of Illinois’ state central committee back in July of 2020. But as the aforementioned Article II, Section 1 of our constitution states: “no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector”. This means that federally elected officials may not be appointed electors in the Electoral College. Because we hold our constitution in high regard and follow the rule of law, Congressman Garcia decided to step down from the position and asked me to take his place as an elector for the State of Illinois and I humbly accepted.
How are electors typically selected? Is the process for choosing electors different in Illinois than in other states?
The most common method of choosing electors is by state party convention. This is how we select electors in Illinois. Each political party’s state convention nominates a slate of electors, and a vote is held at the convention. Those that are selected as electors are usually state legislators or other local elected officials.
How many votes does each state receive?
The United States Constitution gives each state a number of electors equal to the combined total of US representatives and US senators who represent that state in the U.S. Congress. Each of the 50 states has a different number of electoral votes. Illinois currently holds 20 electoral votes.
How many electoral votes does a candidate need to win in order to become president?
The first presidential candidate to receive 270 electoral votes is elected president of the United States. There are a total of 538 electoral votes in the Electoral College across 50 states along with the District of Columbia.
When and where does the Electoral College meet?
The Electoral College members of each of the respective states must meet in their state capitols on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December. Thus, I will be joining my fellow Electoral College members on Monday December 14 in the Illinois state capitol in Springfield to cast my vote. The votes are then tabulated before a joint session of Congress on January 6.
What happens if no candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes?
In the rare scenario that no candidate wins the special winning number of 270 electoral votes then a “contingent election” is the procedure that will be used. In this contingent election, the US House of Representatives votes for the next president while the US Senate votes for the next vice-president.
How are electoral votes apportioned?
Electoral votes are allocated to each state by the number of senators and representatives it has in congress – two votes for its senators in the U.S. Senate plus a number of votes equal to the number of its Congressional districts. The number of each states’ congressional districts are determined by the US census that is conducted every 10 years to count the nation’s population growth.
Several US presidents have been elected without winning the popular vote, including most recently in 2016.
Yes. Our 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is an interesting example of where we had a candidate (Clinton) that won the popular vote by approximately 3 million votes, but because Trump won the Electoral College, the presidency ended up going to Trump.
Do you think in this election there will be any ‘faithless electors’, understood as those voting for someone other than the person they have pledged to?
The focus on faithless electors in the media is not too surprising, given that a number of electors in other states either voted or attempted to vote for a candidate different from the ones to whom they were pledged to in 2016. While there are no laws penalizing faithless electors in Illinois, I have faith (*pun intended) that when the time comes that every elector in our state will fulfill their duties as specified in the constitution.
In recent years, some have called for the Electoral College to be abolished. Do you agree?
I agree that it’s time to start having the discussion to reform and modernize our electoral system for the benefit of the people.
Illinois is a state with a sizable Polish-American population, including in your senate district that is located mostly in the City of Chicago. What are your relations with the Polish community?
The Polish community of Chicago is a vital part of our great state. Like other immigrants who settled here, they helped build Chicago into the world-class city it is today. I have a great working relationship with members of the business, civic, and religious leaders of our beloved Polish community not only here in my district, but all over the city and state. Having grown up with countless friends who trace their heritage to the lands along the Vistula River, I have been lucky enough to learn through them about the resilient culture which Poles take such pride in.
In the last capital bill passed by the General Assembly of the State of Illinois, I am proud to have secured a grant for the Polish Museum of America for $125,000. While the museum is located in my senate district, this priceless ark of Polish-American history, which preserves relics of patriots Tadeusz Kościuszko, Ignace Paderewski, and Saint Pope John Paul II has a significance for people throughout the world.