Julia Kennedy Beckman, ballots in hand, walked up to the podium in the center of the Illinois House floor. It was a Monday morning in 2008, and she was about to cast a vote in the Electoral College for the first time – for Barack Obama and then-Vice-President-elect Joe Biden. After giving a small speech and dropping the ballots in a dark-stained wooden box, Kennedy Beckman did what very few in the country are able to do – seal in an electoral vote for a presidential and vice presidential race.
On December 14, she’ll have that opportunity to vote for Joe Biden yet again, but this time for President.
Kennedy Beckman is one of Illinois’ 20 electors, voting alongside other Democratic politicians like Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Representative Chuy Garcia (D-4) and Don Harmon, the Illinois Senate Majority Leader. While we might know these politicians more for their current positions, all of them serve as members of the Electoral College and will be casting the country’s final ballots on December 14.
The Electoral College is something that American voters hear about all the time, and something that’s often shrouded in mystery – and for no clear reason, either. The Electoral College consists of 538 delegates – elected officials, party supporters and retired politicians – who stand as some of the most involved politicos within their state party. And while most of the members are household names, you probably have no idea that they’re members of such a powerful aspect of presidential politics within the United States.
On November 3, just over 6 million ballots were cast by Illinois voters, helping to usher in Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ future as the next president and vice president of the United States. But while the majority of Americans voted earlier this month, all of the electoral voters, and 20 from Illinois, will convene in their respective states and vote on December 14, locking in the projections that have had people glued to their phones since Election Night.
It is impossible to expand on a discussion about who our electors are without acknowledging the fraught history of the Electoral College. The Electoral College is a uniquely American invention – one that has its roots in colonial-era racism and elitism.
During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, while the United States was still in infancy, the delegates representing their respective states were at a crossroads. The Constitution needed to be passed, but debates arose over how leadership – the presidency – would be selected for years to come. Delegates initially vied for the Virginia Plan, which would have seen Congress selecting the president. Over concerns about separation of powers, this idea was tossed out.
James Wilson, a Pennsylvanian, Founding Father and one of the first Supreme Court Justices, introduced the idea of the Electoral College as a way that the election could “produce more confidence among the people,” as well as still remain a direct way to have “an election without the intervention of the States.” The idea was that within each of the 13 states, voters would vote for president, but instead of voting directly with a popular vote, their ballots would push a group of fellow statesmen to vote for the candidate of their choice. The size of that group would be proportional to the population of the state, and equal to the representation within Congress: the number of representatives, plus two, to stand in for senators.
Roundabout and controlling, Wilson also birthed a much more despicable idea: the Three-Fifths compromise. Up until that point, only white men and freed Black men were being considered when the amount of representation in Congress was being determined for each state, and the North far outpaced the South when looking at the freed population alone. The “compromise” determined that “all other persons,” or enslaved people, who were primarily located in the South, would be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining Congressional representation.
Few spoke in opposition of the proposal, save for Gouvernor Morris, who wrote the preamble to the Constitution, and opposed the plan on the basis of both the “nefarious institution” of slavery as well as the leverage and potential incentive it would give southern states to continue the practice. He expands more on that in a speech to his fellow delegates three months into the convention, on August 8:
“The admission of slaves into the representation, when fairly explained, comes to this — that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa, and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections, and damns them to the most cruel bondage, shall have more votes in a government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey, who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.”
The Three-Fifths Compromise passed and was not struck down until 1868, with the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Nearly 230 years after it was created, the Electoral College has spawned debates about its place in American politics, particularly because it has superseded the popular vote on four separate occasions – most notably in 2000, with the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore, and in 2016, when Donald Trump won over Hillary Clinton.
After the outcome of the 2016 election, which saw then-nominee Trump pull ahead of Clinton to secure the presidency by way of electoral votes, despite Clinton receiving the majority of the popular vote, some voters wanted the Electoral College gone.
“I would say that is very disconcerting, that Hillary Clinton had millions more votes, and that Donald Trump was elected president,” said Mary Morrissey, the executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois. “But having said that, it would be very difficult to overturn the current constitutional provisions, given the fact that 36, 37 states have to approve a constitutional amendment. So it would be an uphill battle, because all those smaller states would fight not to have their votes diminished. But certainly, it’s very troubling that the will of the people has not prevailed, you know, in many of our elections of the modern time.”
In the 1960s, the American public pushed back against the Electoral College with the support from Representative Emmanuel Celler, of New York City, and Indiana Senator Birch Bayh. The 1968 presidential election had three front runners: Richard Nixon, who ultimately became president, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, and third-party candidate George Wallace. Wallace’s intent was not to win, but to prevent a majority of electoral votes going to any candidate, which would force an unprecedented runoff; Nixon ultimately received 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191, though only won the popular vote by less than 1 percent.
This outcome triggered discussions about enacting a truly direct election of the president through the national popular vote alone, something that Celler and Bayh both advocated for within their respective wings of Congress. Celler suggested the outcome should be tied to whichever duo won 40 percent of the popular vote, with a runoff if necessary to determine the winner. This passed in the house, and Bayh proposed a joint resolution to carry it into the Senate.
Ultimately, due to segregationists – headed by Republican Senator Strom Thurmond – and a fear that an equalizing, national popular vote would put white and Black voters on the same level, the resolution was dropped. Bayh tried five more times to get the resolution through the Senate, but the idea remained firmly in purgatory.
Former Illinois Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. served in Congress from 1995 until 2012, and during that span introduced a constitutional amendment four separate times, and most recently in 2011. The bill didn’t pass in any of the four times it was introduced to the House floor.
As an elector, Kennedy Beckman is unsure about abolishment of the Electoral College, and has “gone back and forth.”
“I’m beginning to think that we might be better off without it, but I think it’s a very, very, very long shot possibility that it would ever be overturned,” Kennedy Beckman said. “The year 2000 really bothered me, with Bush v. Gore, and then when Trump was elected, even though Hillary had a million more votes … that didn’t work out too well for us.”
“So, I don’t know, talk to me again after the next election,” she added with a laugh. “ Four years from now.”
Illinois, like 47 other states, follows a winner-take-all model for their 20 electoral votes, meaning that the winner of the popular vote within the state also wins every electoral vote. Parties then choose their electors, and if that party wins within the state, sends their delegation to vote on behalf of the state within the Electoral College, which votes by noon on December 14.
While the Electoral College all vote at the same time, they don’t vote in the same place. Each state is able to select the location for their election, and in Illinois, it’s typically the House chambers within the State Capitol building in Springfield. After the individual states vote, they send their votes to the president of the U.S. Senate, or Vice President Mike Pence, as well as the National Archives and other officials. Then, the votes are counted during a joint session of Congress in early January.
Illinois’ electors, which have historically been Democratic, are chosen and nominated by the State Central Committee, which serves as a governing body within the Democratic Party of Illinois. The Committee is composed of 36 individuals — 18 men and 18 women, elected every four years, according to Morrissey. Elections are every four years, during primary elections.
“They’re elected like any other office — they’ve got to circulate petitions, they have to submit the paperwork to the state Board of Elections, and then they stand for election,” Morrissey said. “That body votes on a slate of electors, and when that slate is approved by the committee, it gets filed with the Board of Elections.”
Many of the electors within Illinois are already elected officials — 12 out of the 20 electors currently hold an office outside of the State Central Committee, where every elector is a member, save for Vera Davis, the wife of Representative and committee member Danny Davis, and the two at-large electors, Lori Lightfoot and Don Harmon.
“In general, in Illinois there’s been a tradition of a large percentage of our electors are actually members of the State Central Committee,” Morrissey explained. “So they’ve been elected already as representatives of the Democratic Party.”
Picking electors from a pool of already-elected Democrats goes further than convenience or representation — it’s a strategic move. In 2016, seven members of the Electoral College switched their vote from their party’s candidate to candidates who either weren’t on the ballot or weren’t viable for the presidency, making national headlines for being “faithless electors.” Faithless electors are less likely to occur if the people who are voting are long-time supporters of the party they’re voting on behalf of, according to Morrissey and Kennedy Beckman.
“There’s a confidence that the people that are Democratic electors in the state, who have a long history of being Democratic elected officials, aren’t going to slip on the Democratic candidate and vote for a Republican nominee,” Morrissey said. “There’s an element of trust that this is somebody who, once they’re nominated to be selected as an elector, that there’s no chance they will not vote for the nominee of the Democratic Party.”
Kennedy Beckman and her 19 co-electors all have deep roots in the Illinois Democratic Party. She’ll be representing Illinois’ 11th Congressional District, and has been politically involved in the region for “a long time,” having spent 24 years on the District 99 school board, being in her fourth term of being on the State Central Committee, and also being a precinct committeeperson in Darien, coordinating local Democratic efforts in the suburbs.
“My parents were very interested in politics, and when I was in college at the University of Iowa, I ran for the student council and represented my dorm,” Kennedy Beckman said. “I’ve always supported other candidates, and always watched everything … it just gets in your blood and you never stop.”
Kennedy Beckman has served as an elector twice before: in 2008 and in 2012, both times voting for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
“Oh my god, it was so great,” she said with a laugh. “We were all just so thrilled to be there … it was really wonderful, and then of course, to be able to vote for him the second time was great. We had worked very hard to get him elected, and worked hard to get him into his Senate seat, and yeah — it was really, really thrilling.”
The vote, held within the chambers of the Illinois Capitol, takes “less than an hour,” according to Kennedy Beckman.
“The lack of speeches and fanfare helped a sort of solemnity and celebration to just concentrate on our voting without distractions,” she added. After voting, she says that the Secretary of State, who oversees the vote, sent each elector a framed photo and copies of the two ballots that electors cast — one for president, and one for vice president, printed on thick, white cardstock.
This year, there seems to be no consensus about whether the vote will be cast in person or online due to rising COVID-19 cases across the state. Historically, the vote has taken place in the House chamber within the Capitol, with the event being open to the public, according to Matt Dietrich with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
But this past Friday, Illinois entered Tier 3 mitigations statewide, which explicitly state that meetings or social events cannot occur “under any capacity.” With 20 electors plus the press in an event that is traditionally open to the public, the location of the December 14 vote could very well be online. According to Dietrich, the location of the electors’ meeting “has not been set,” and the Secretary of State’s office is undecided.
Regardless of the shape the vote takes, Kennedy Beckman is still just as excited to vote this year as she was 12 years ago.
“I wish more people knew what a lovely democratic ceremony it is,” Kennedy Beckman said. “What a great ceremony it is to see democracy in action, when you’re all there to vote together.”
Header image and graphics by Cam Rodriguez. Original image in header is “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy.