Photograph by Cliff Owen, AP
Photograph by Cliff Owen, AP
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Why does the U.S. have the electoral college?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

How do you reconcile the cry of American forefathers that “all men are created equal” with the notion back then that only men could vote? Or that Black men, who couldn’t, would be counted as three-fifths of a person, which ended up giving more political power to people who enslaved others?

The same contradictions were at work when the Constitution’s framers developed the Electoral College, which has played a more visible role in recent presidential elections. With the founders divided, and some distrustful of a straight-up popular vote, they settled on an indirect selection for president, by “electors” whose numbers were based on a state’s congressional representation. Even though it’s confusing, distorting, and unpopular, the once-every-four-years Electoral College has been hard to get rid of.

As Erin Blakemore explains for Nat Geo, when Americans vote for president, they are actually choosing 538 members of the Electoral College, which will cast votes on their behalf. Two things distinguish the Electoral College from the popular vote: One, it’s the total of all members of the U.S. House of Representatives (numbered by proportion of population as counted by the U.S. Census) and senators (two per state, no matter how big or small). Two, 48 states have a winner-take-all electoral delegate system off the popular vote. The two factors have led to five presidents being “elected” but losing the popular vote, including in 2000 and 2016. And it explains why presidential campaigns mainly take place in narrowly divided states, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida. (Here’s a brief video examination).

Attempts to eliminate the 233-year-old Electoral College have failed. When U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (pictured above) tried to get Congress not to certify the 2016 Electoral College victory for Donald Trump, which went against his more than 2.8 million popular vote deficit to Hillary Clinton, not a single member of the Senate would support her.

“It’s over,” the outgoing vice president, Joe Biden, told Waters.

One thing seems likely about the days ahead—and of future elections. The complaints about the Electoral College will go on. Here’s more background.

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Today in a minute

Digging again: A second excavation began Monday at an Oklahoma cemetery in an effort to find and identify victims of the 1921 massacre of hundreds of Black people by white mobs, the AP reports. The Tulsa Race Massacre, not taught for decades in Oklahoma schools, decimated an area that was once a cultural and economic focal point for African Americans, DeNeen L. Brown reports “We can tell this story the way it needs to be told, now,” says one forensic anthropologist assisting in the dig, the University of Florida’s Phoebe Stubblefield, who is a descendant of a survivor of the massacre. “The story is no longer hidden.”

Blame Stalin: That’s the shorthand answer for why fighting has erupted off and on for decades in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of current-day Azerbaijan. In 1923, Joseph Stalin placed the region, then 94 percent Armenian Christians, not into the Armenian republic, where it had been, but into primarily Muslim Azerbaijan. Residents have been discriminated against ever since, Erin Blakemore reports for Nat Geo. After the Soviet Union collapsed, warfare in the early 1990s pushed more than a million people to become refugees, and around 30,000 people, including civilians, were killed.

Two healthcare systems: Why are African Americans suffering disproportionately from COVID-19? A major poll has found that 7 in 10 Black people believe that people are treated unfairly based on race or ethnicity when they seek medical care. The poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation and ESPN’s The Undefeated, the most comprehensive survey of African American attitudes since the pandemic began, also found about 4 out of 10 Black adults said they knew someone who has died from the coronavirus, almost double the rate for white people, The Undefeatedis reporting.

Undocumented—and essential: They’ve never been so critical to a hurting nation. At the same time, their immigration status has never been so tricky. Author Héctor Tobar talks with undocumented essential workers feeding those in nursing homes, stocking supermarket shelves, and making masks and reusable protective wear. As they work in Southern California, they see their communities ravaged, Tobar reports for Nat Geo. Latinos account for half of California’s COVID-19 deaths.

Instagram photo of the day

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Many wrongs make a right: Photographer Nichole Sobecki wanted to cover a wedding in Sudan’s Red Sea mountains, but finding fuel was a challenge. Once fuel was secured, “we promptly lost our way,” Sobecki says. “Once found, it began to pour rain. But as the skies cleared the dancing began, each man competing for the highest leap, I was reminded of how a place can reveal itself to you through the kindness of strangers—and a little luck."

The big takeaway

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Little Caesar: Before most kids are old enough to go to preschool, the son of Cleopatra was king of Egypt. Caesarion’s short life was often tenuous, beginning when his reputed father, Julius Caesar, was assassinated when he was three years old. With so much interest in Cleopatra these days, Nat Geo’s History magazine looks at the fascinating intrigues of Cleopatra and last of the pharaohs. They were protected by Marc Antony for a time, but Caesarion was unable to make it past his teens in the murderous world of Roman-Egyptian leadership. Subscribers can read more here. (Pictured above, Caesarion wears the striped head cloth of the pharaohs in a first-century B.C. rose granite statue in Rome’s National Roman Museum.)

Related: How Cleopatra sought to create a dynasty—and what we could learn from Egypt’s queens

In a few words

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On Tuesday, George Stone covers travel. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, Rachael Bale on animal news, and Whitney Johnson on photography.

Last glimpse

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One mogul’s purchase, one group’s protest: For nearly a half century, Black and Hispanic residents had lived near the seaside in Venice, California. In 1968, many helped create a church where they could worship. As gentrification gripped west Los Angeles, the First Baptist Church of Venice was sold, but for the past three years, a group called Save Venice has protested on Sundays outside the old church (above). They don’t want the new owner, Jay Penske, CEO of the company that owns Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Rolling Stone, to turn it into upscale multifamily units. “You’re bulldozing the history, the culture, the contributions of the African-American community, so that it can’t be seen and cannot be acknowledged, and there’s no evidence of it,” longtime resident Naomi Nightingale tells Nat Geo.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse has selected the photos. Kimberly Pecoraro also helped produce this newsletter. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and happy trails.