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Ask Civics 101: What Do The National Archives Have To Do With The Electoral College?

Today's listener question: What do the National Archives have to do with the Electoral College?  Read on, or listen to this short podcast episode for the answer.

Do you have a question about American democracy? Ask us and we'll track down the answer!

We found our answer with Jessie Kratz, historian of the National Archives and Records Administration. The Archives are tasked with the preservation and documentation of government records. And, as it turns out, with the administration of the Electoral College.

"Before the archives got the responsibility," Jessie tells us, "it was part of the State Department and then in 1950 there was a big re-org of government and it was given to the National Archives, so. The State Department was responsible for the creation of the archives and so I think that they were just washing their hands of this bureaucratic requirements by 1950."

If you're feeling a bit iffy on the Electoral College itself, take a moment to listen to our episode on it. We break it all down. As far as the Archives' involvement, Jessie says, the Archivist has delegated that to the Office of the National Register (we've got an episode on that as well).

"So before the election," Jessie says, "what they do is they contact all the people that are in charge of the election process in every state and outline the responsibilities for the Electoral College process. And then after the election results are certified, the governor of each state and then the mayor of D.C. they have to prepare seven of these things called Certificates of Ascertainment."

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These certificates are the link between our popular vote and the electoral vote. They list the various slates of electors for the various candidates, and how many votes those electors received. Because, remember, when you vote for president, you’re actually voting for a slate of electors who will then cast that vote basically on your behalf. So the certificates must feature all of the slates and the various vote breakdowns. They must also be signed by the governor.

"A real signature," Jessie explains, "no stamp, and it has to carry the seal. And so the archivist gets these and he's been getting them and we've been posting them on the Electoral College website. So if you want to see the ones that have already come in there online now and this is the document that outlines who will be voting on December 14th."

These certificates vary quite a bit, down to the sometimes roundabout way they present this information and their graphic design. Ohio’s is pretty ornate. If you have trouble wrapping your mind around the Electoral College, these certificates provide a helpful visual breakdown of where your vote actually goes and what a slate is. You can check the 2020 certificates out here.

"And then after the Electoral College meets," says Jessie, "we're going to get copies of the Certificate of Vote and the Certificate of Ascertainment, these papers. And we work with Congress to make sure that they have all the copies as well, because they're six copies and the six copies are supposed to go to the president of the Senate, the secretary of state of the state archivist and the federal judge. So sometimes they don't make their way to the Senate. And so we have to work with them to make sure that they have fifty one electoral pairs document their certificate pairs when they're getting ready to count the electoral vote on January six."

The actual counting happens in the Senate, when various senators are called upon by the president of the Senate (the vice president) to read from the certificates of vote for each state.

So the role of the Archive, specifically of the federal register is, simply, to process paperwork. But as Jessie explains, that is the overall duty of the Archives afterall.

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"We're all about the paperwork," Jessie says, "And so that's what we're basically managing the paperwork around it. But I kind of I like it because the archive archives role is really twofold. We're collecting these certificates and we're making them available to the public. And then we also after the election, we keep them forever and so people can come look at election results that happened 50 years ago, one hundred years ago, and they're available for public use. And so, yeah, it's it's bureaucracy and it's paperwork, but I think it's really necessary and it's part of the democratic process."

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.
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