The Electoral College Survival Guide

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Getty Images

As you will be reminded countless times in the coming week, when you cast your vote in next Tuesday's presidential election, you're not taking part in a nationwide popular vote, but rather helping decide who your state's Electoral College delegates support. There are all sorts of arguments for and against using this system rather than picking a winner based solely on the national popular vote, but for the moment, it looks like the Electoral College will be sticking around for a while. So what do you need to know about the least-fun college this side of the Catholic Church's College of Cardinals?

What are the Electoral College's admissions policies?

Different states choose their electors in different ways. Some states have nominations for electors during party conventions, while others choose their electors in primaries. In Pennsylvania, the campaigns choose their own electors. The only real things that can disqualify you from being an elector are holding a federal office or having engaged in some sort of insurrection against the U.S. government. Chosen electors are generally loyal party members who can be counted on to cast a ballot that's in line with their state's popular vote.

Where's the Electoral College's campus?

It doesn't have one. Although the name might make you think that all the electors meet in a centralized location to cast their ballots, the Electoral College never actually convenes as a unified group. Instead, the chosen electors all meet at their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes. The votes are then counted in a joint session of Congress on January 6th.

What if no one gets a majority of the Electoral College's votes?

If no candidate can grab a majority (currently 270) of the Electoral College's votes, the House of Representatives meets immediately to pick the new President. In this situation, each state's Congressmen get together and pick a candidate among the top three vote getters in the Electoral College balloting. Each state's delegation then casts one vote. This process keeps going on indefinitely until a single candidate receives a majority of the states' votes. The House of Representatives has picked two presidents: Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and John Quincy Adams in 1824.

Since electors also ballots for Vice President, the same situation can arise with that office. In these cases, the Senate immediately goes into session to pick a Vice President, although each Senator has his own vote. The Senate votes until a candidate receives a majority of the cast votes. This sort of contingent election has happened just once. In 1836 Martin Van Buren's running mate, Richard M. Johnson needed 148 votes to win the Vice Presidency, but Virginia's electors refused to vote for him. As a result, he ended up stuck with 147 votes, and the Senate had to hold a contingent election, where Johnson cruised by Whig candidate Francis P. Granger.

Can the electors change their mind?

They can, but they then become what are known as "faithless electors." Technically, states make their electors pledge to vote in a certain way, and 24 states have laws that punish electors who decide to get cute and switch things up. However, with a few exceptions like Michigan and Minnesota, votes cast by faithless electors still count in the final tally.

Yeah, but that never happens, does it?

Faithless electors have actually popped up fairly frequently in American electoral history. One notable instance of faithless electors rearing their head occurred in 1972. Roger MacBride, the treasurer of the Republican Party of Virginia, was a pledged elector for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Instead, he cast his ballot for the Libertarian ticket. While this vote put him firmly on the outs with the state G.O.P., he became something of a Libertarian folk hero. In fact, Libertarians were so enthused by his vote that he won the party's presidential nomination in the 1976 election.

Although most switcheroos don't benefit small-party candidates like this one did, they're not all that uncommon, and not a recent trend, either; Abraham Lincoln's winning total in the 1860 election included four electors who were pledged to Stephen Douglas. Although Ronald Reagan won sound victories in 1980 and 1984, he also received a single electoral vote in 1976. Mike Padden, a faithless elector from Spokane, cast his vote for Reagan instead of Gerald Ford, as he'd pledged.

It's winner-take-all for each state, right?

Yes, for most states, the winner of the popular vote gets all of the state's electors. However, Maine and Nebraska allocate their electors a little differently. Since each seat in Congress is roughly analogous to one vote in the Electoral College, these states let each congressional district pick its own candidate. The state's remaining two electoral votes, which correspond to the state's two Senators, go to whichever candidate wins the popular vote within the state. Technically, this system could result in a state's electoral votes being split between two candidates. In practice, though, all of the districts tend to vote the same way. Although Maine and Nebraska have been using this system since 1972 and 1992, respectively, neither state has ever split its presidential votes.

What happens if a president-elect dies?

The national election will take place next week, but the Electoral College won't formally meet to cast their votes until December 15. If a candidate dies or becomes otherwise unfit to take office in the interim, a thorny issue pops up. Some states, like Virginia, legally bind their electors to vote for the candidate whose name was on the general election ballot. Other states, though, are more flexible and would allow their electors to vote for the ticket's vice-presidential candidate or other agreed-upon candidate.

Luckily, this scenario has never happened with an election winner. In 1872, though, Democrat Horace Greeley died just over three weeks after Ulysses S. Grant thumped him in the election. Since the Electoral College still had to meet to elect Grant, electors who would have voted for Greeley simply spread their 66 votes among other Democratic candidates. As a result, Thomas Andrews Hendricks actually came in second in the election with 42 electoral votes despite not campaigning for the presidency; he was busy successfully running for Governor of Indiana. Three electors actually voted for Greeley even though he was dead, which probably tells you all you need to know about the health of the Democratic Party during Reconstruction.

If the President elect dies after the Electoral College's voting but before the inauguration, the Twentieth Amendment states that the Vice President elect becomes President.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
Triple7Deals

This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

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2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
BetaFresh

You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

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3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
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These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

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4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

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If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

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These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

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6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

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You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

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At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

8 Things to Know About Crispus Attucks

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Crispus Attucks was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770—and became known as the first fatality in the fight for American independence. In a poem memorializing the massacre, poet John Boyle O'Reilly wrote, "Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd, as you may, such deaths have been seed of nations." Attucks was America's first seed.

1. Crispus Attucks may have escaped slavery.

We have few facts about Attucks's early life. According to Mitch Kachun, author of First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory, Attucks was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, likely around the year 1723. Newspaper accounts following the Boston Massacre described him as "a Molatto." His father is said to have been an enslaved African man named Prince Yonger, while his mother was likely named Nancy Attucks and was of Natick or Wampanoag heritage.

Attucks may have been enslaved and escaped servitude in 1750. That year the Boston Gazette ran an ad offering 10 pounds to anybody who apprehended "'a Molatto fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispas,' who 'ran away from his Master, William Brown, of Framingham,'" Kachun writes. "Crispas" was also described as being "'6 Feet two Inches high, [with] short curl'd hair, his Knees nearer together than common.'"

2. Crispus Attucks became a whaler.

Attucks is thought to have joined the crew of a Nantucket whaling ship and worked as a harpooner. He went by the alias "Michael Johnson," perhaps to avoid being sent back into slavery. (A newspaper reporting the massacre refers to him as a "mulatto man named Johnson" [PDF].) At the time of the massacre, Attucks had been planning to stay in Massachusetts only briefly. He had just returned from a voyage to the Bahamas and was preparing to set sail for North Carolina.

3. Crispus Attucks arrived in Boston at a tumultuous time.

The Stamp Act of 1765 required that residents pay taxes on paper goods—from playing cards to magazines to stationery—imported to the British colonies. Colonists resented taxation without representation and riots became widespread. The Townshend Acts, which taxed even more types of goods, followed in 1767 and exacerbated the colonists' anger. The Sons of Liberty, a secret group of American businessmen, organized a yearlong boycott of British imports. To quell the uprising, the British government sent several thousand troops into Boston, a city of 15,000 residents. Just days before the Boston Massacre occurred, a brawl broke out between British soldiers and the city's ropemakers.

4. The Boston Massacre was sparked by a dispute over a barber bill.

Boston Massacre print by Paul Revere
Detail of "The Bloody Massacre" by Paul Revere
Paul Revere, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On March 5, 1770, a young boy began complaining that a British officer had failed to pay his barber bill. (The officer denied this.) When a British sentry began harassing the boy, a crowd of colonists—including Attucks—gathered at Boston's Dock Square and began harassing the officer in return. British reinforcements arrived. Tensions escalated. The colonists began tossing snowballs, pebbles, and wood at the soldiers. Suddenly, gunshots rang out. Six colonists were wounded, and another five died. Attucks is believed to have been the first to fall.

5. Nobody knows exactly what Crispus Attucks did during the altercation.

Some witnesses claimed that Attucks was the leading protestor and attacked the soldiers with a piece of wood. Others say he was simply watching, leaning on a stick. Regardless of his actions, two bullets ricocheted and lodged in Attucks's chest, killing him instantly.

6. The funeral for Crispus Attucks attracted thousands of mourners.

Attucks, along with the four other victims—Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr—were buried at Boston's Granary Burying Ground. The funeral procession attracted up to 10,000 people. As one contemporary wrote, "A greater number of persons assembled on this occasion, than ever before gathered on this continent for a similar purpose."

7. John Adams called Crispus Attucks the massacre's instigator.

Every British soldier involved faced the prospect of hanging, and John Adams—later America's second president—was tasked with defending them. During his defense, Adams claimed that the soldiers were acting in self-defense and called the protestors "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tarrs. And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can't conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them." Adams claimed that Attucks was the instigator. The argument worked: nobody was convicted of murder. (Two soldiers were, however, convicted of manslaughter. As punishment, their thumbs were branded with the letter M.)

8. Crispus Attucks was later hailed as a patriotic hero.

Boston Massacre monument
The Boston Massacre monument commemorates Crispus Attucks and four other victims.

The public outcry after the massacre forced the British troops to temporarily withdraw from the city and caused Adams to lose half of his law practice. Three weeks after the massacre, Paul Revere made and distributed a print depicting the event; today, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History calls the illustration "probably the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history." In Boston, March 5 became a day of remembrance. According to abolitionist and historian William Wells Brown, "The anniversary of this event was publicly commemorated in Boston, by an oration and other exercises, every year until after our national independence was achieved, when the Fourth of July was substituted for the fifth of March." More than a century after the event, in 1888, a massive monument was erected at Boston Common to commemorate Crispus Attucks and the four other men who died. It, and the location of the massacre, are now prominent locations on Boston's Freedom Trail.