As 13 electors cast ballots on Monday for the US’ first black president in the Confederacy’s old Capitol, Henry Marsh emotionally recalled the smartest man he ever knew — a waiter, who couldn’t get a better job because of his race.
“He waited tables for 30 years — six days a week, 12 hours a day, from 12 noon to 12 midnight — and he supported his family,” Marsh, 75, a civil rights lawyer and state senator, said of his father as he fought back tears. “He suffered a lot. He went through a lot.”
In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the 538 electors performed a constitutional process to legally elect Democrat Barack Obama the 44th president.
More than 131 million voters cast ballots on Nov. 4 — the most ever in a US presidential election. But Obama’s election is not complete until Congress tallies the outcome of Monday’s Electoral College vote at a joint session scheduled for Jan. 6.
Monday’s voting was largely ceremonial, the results preordained by Obama’s Nov. 4 victory over Republican Senator John McCain. Obama won 365 electoral votes to 173 for McCain. All the electors cast ballots in accordance with the popular votes in their states.
In many states, the formal, staid proceeding was touched with poignance, particularly among people old enough to recall a time when voting alone posed the risk of violence for black Americans.
The contrast at Virginia’s Capitol, where the Confederate Congress met, was striking.
Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine said in his speech that the 200-year-old Capitol was where lawmakers just 50 years ago orchestrated the state’s formal defiance of federal school desegregation orders. But he also noted that it is where L. Douglas Wilder took his oath as the nation’s first elected black governor in 1990.
“This temple of Democracy shines very brightly today,” Kaine told a standing-room-only crowd attending what had always been a sparsely attended afterthought.
In Florida, state Senator Frederica Wilson, 66, never thought she would see a black man elected president.
“White water fountains, colored water fountains. You couldn’t sit at the lunch counter, go to the bank or get a hamburger,” Wilson said after signing a document certifying that Obama got all 27 of her state’s electors.
“The pain will always be there, but I think there’s a realization that people have evolved,” she said.
“The election is one thing, but it’s really official when they seal those ballots with wax and send them off,” said Sedrick Rawlins, a retired 81-year-old dentist from Manchester, Connecticut.
In US presidential elections, voters do not vote directly for candidates but cast ballots for electors who pledge to support their party’s nominee. Almost all the states conduct their vote counts under winner-takes-all rules. That means they award all their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes.
Today, 270 electoral votes are required to elect a president — one more than half the college’s 538 members. That number comes from the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 senators and three electors for Washington. The number of electoral votes for each state is based on how many seats they have in both houses of Congress.