Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ballot selfies -- fun, but . . . -- Oct. 27, 2016 column


You may have heard -- how could you not? -- that pop star Justin Timberlake snapped a ballot selfie while voting in Tennessee on Monday and posted it online.  

“Hey! You! Yeah, You! I just flew from LA to Memphis to #rock the vote!!! No excuses, my good people! There could be early voting in your town too,” Timberlake, 35, wrote to his 37 million Instagram followers. That’s right – 37 million.

Timberlake’s selfie didn’t show how he voted, but He’s with Her. He was host of a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in August.

He rocked the vote all right. His selfie was seen ‘round the world, because it could have landed him in jail. In Tennessee, it’s against state law to use a mobile device to take photos or videos in a polling place.

Fortunately, the sensible district attorney in Memphis issued a statement saying: “No one in our office is currently investigating this matter nor will we be using our limited resources to do to so.”

In the universe of potential problems at the polling places, ballot selfies are minor irritants, indeed. They’re innocuous and fun, the latest manifestation of the urge to share all on social media, and they encourage people to get out and vote. What could go wrong?

More than you might think.

We didn’t always have a secret ballot and, until the late 1880s and early 1890s, American elections were rife with corruption.

Party bosses and local officials provided ballots with only some candidates’ names, “helped” voters mark their ballots and gave voters a corn kernel or button, proving they voted “right.” The voter could exchange the token later for money.

As states adopted the secret, or Australian ballot, named for where it originated, in the late 19th century there was less opportunity for vote buying and coercion. You could say how you voted, but no one knew for sure.

To continue ensuring a secret ballot in the 21st century, some states have passed laws banning ballot selfies.

It’s illegal in 16 states to take pictures of ballots at polling places, legal to do so in 21 states and the District of Columbia, and legally unclear in the rest, the Associated Press reported. The situation in the states is fluid, however.

In Virginia, for example, it was illegal in previous elections to take pictures of one’s ballot but will be OK this time, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring said last month. You can also use your phone to look up information, but not to call someone.

In much of the Deep South, including Alabama and North Carolina, it’s illegal to take pictures of ballots or in polling places. Texas and California are among states where it’s unclear, according to AP.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other free speech advocates have fought state laws prohibiting ballot selfies with some success. A federal appeals court ruled in August that New Hampshire’s ban on ballot selfies unconstitutionally limited the right of free speech.

A federal district court granted a preliminary injunction Oct. 24 against Michigan’s ban on selfies, so voters can snap away Nov. 8. With so many different laws, the issue likely will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But critics like law professor Rick Hasen of the University of California-Irvine,  author of the Election Law Blog, warn that ballot selfies could bring a return of buying and selling votes and of coercion from employers, unions and others.

While vote-buying cases do pop up from time to time, no corroborating evidence of vote buying or voter coercion from the 20th or 21st centuries was presented in the New Hampshire case, the appellate court said.

Quoting from a 1957 U.S. Supreme Court opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter, the appeals court wrote that prohibiting ballot selfies was like “burn(ing) the house to roast the pig.”

Technology undeniably has changed how we communicate, and we must protect our right to self-expression. But nobody wants to make it easier for someone to intimidate, coerce or buy voters.

It’s dismaying that the ubiquitous selfie might turn back the clock and undermine our shaky confidence in honest elections. Too many people are already trying to do that. 

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ins and outs of getting paid as a family caregiver -- on

You Can Get Paid as a Family Caregiver

Medicaid is making it easier for families to afford caring for a loved one at home

You Can Get Paid as a Family Caregiver
Exploring the maze of public and private options to help you get paid for caregiving. — Getty Images
Getting paid as a family caregiver seems about as likely as winning the lottery. Just ask the nation's 40 million family caregivers — spouses, adult children and other relatives — 34 million of whom provide unpaid care to someone 50 or older.
Medicare does not pay family caregivers, who traditionally have assumed these duties without pay.
But with older adults living and needing care longer and wanting to stay in their own homes, attitudes and public policies about family caregiving are slowly changing.
Thanks to innovations in Medicaid and the Department of Veterans Affairs, older adults and people with disabilities are designing their own in-home care programs and hiring family members (and, in rare cases, spouses). There's still a long way to go, though.
"These programs are so small. They're not picking up enough people," says Gail Gibson Hunt, president of the National Alliance for Caregiving.
With those caveats in mind, here are some ways family caregivers can be compensated.


If your loved one is eligible for Medicaid, check to see if your state has a participant-directed services program. These Medicaid programs are aimed at keeping people of all ages and disabilities independent and in their own homes.
Typically, the participant, working with a caseworker, draws up a care plan and hires a worker of choice, who can be a family member (though in many states not a spouse) to help with such activities as bathing, preparing meals or feeding.
Started as pilot projects called Cash & Counseling in the 1990s, consumer-directed programs expanded under the Affordable Care Act. Currently about 1 million people participate in self-directed Medicaid plans. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) provide financial incentives to states — as much as 6 percent of the cost — to offer the self-directed option.
"The federal government has been extremely supportive of self-direction," granting waivers for states to develop programs, said Suzanne Crisp, a senior adviser for PPL Consulting and former director of program design and implementation at the National Resources Center for Participant-Directed Services at Boston College.
Under self-directed plans, the participant (or a surrogate in cases of mental impairment) can have an overall budget for goods and services based on an assessment of needs. The participant negotiates the caregiver's rate of pay at or above the state minimum wage.
A financial management services firm typically performs such employer duties as collecting time sheets and issuing paychecks, filing taxes, workers' compensation and other insurance.
Programs go by different names and operate differently in each state (if they have them).
Through California's In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program, run by Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid, 500,000 seniors, blind or people with disabilities pay friends, family members and in some instances, spouses, for help with housework, meal preparation and personal care.
Training materials warn, "It can be tricky to be the paid IHSS care provider to a relative or close friend," noting that the caregiver is an employee in a program with a lot of rules.
Check with your local Area Agency on Aging for more information.


The Department of Veterans Affairs has several programs that pay family caregivers under certain circumstances.
Veteran-Directed Home and Community Based Services gives veterans of all ages who otherwise would be in nursing homes the ability to tailor their long-term care at home, including hiring family members or friends as caregivers.
To qualify, a veteran must need assistance with at least three activities of daily living or have a significant cognitive impairment, and be enrolled in the VA for health care. There's no income limit, but higher-income vets are subject to a copayment.
"The veteran is the employer," said Daniel Schoeps, the VA's director of purchased long-term services and support. "It's up to the veteran how much they pay the workers" — although the guideline is $20 an hour maximum.
The veteran has a monthly budget based on physical condition that ranges from $1,200 to $4,000. The average is $2,000 a month. The vet doesn't receive a check; the state or the aging office handles payments to the caregiver, employee taxes, and fees for counseling and financial management services.
The veteran-directed program started in 2009 and is available through 61 VA medical centers in 35 states. About 1,900 veterans participate, a fraction of the 50,000 veterans who receive home health care on any given day. The VA hopes to have the program operating in all 150 medical centers within three years.
The VA offers home caregivers of veterans who were severely injured or suffered mental health issues since 9/11 special benefits through Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, a congressionally mandated program. The caregiver may be a spouse, family member or friend.
"Just because we're talking about post-9/11 veterans doesn't mean we're talking about 21- and 22-year-olds," said Meg Kabat, national director of the VA's Caregiver Support program. Many who were injured in the early 2000s had already been in the service many years.
About 34 percent of the caregivers in the comprehensive assistance program are 41 to 64, and 15 percent are 50 or older. Participants receive a stipend, travel expenses, health insurance and not less than 30 days a year respite care.
"They're paid a financial stipend that represents the sacrifices they make in taking care of the veteran," Kabat said. The payment ranges from $600 a month to $2,300 a month, depending on geographical area and the extent of the disability.
The payment is not taxed, and the caregiver does not earn work credits toward Social Security and Medicare. That can be an issue for younger spouses.
About 24,000 caregivers participated in fiscal 2015. About 300 to 400 new caregivers join the program each month, and several hundred a month leave it because veterans improve through rehab and other services.
A veteran who qualifies for the needs-based VA pension and has served one day in wartime, or a surviving spouse, may be eligible for Aid & Attendance. The vet may pay a family member, though not a spouse, for help with activities of daily living, such as bathing, eating and dressing.
Housebound is a separate program that allows VA pension-eligible veterans who need help ambulating outside the home to pay a family caregiver. In both Aid & Attendance and Housebound, the caregiver must report the income to the IRS.
Peer support group, face-to-face classes and online training are available to anyone caring for a veteran or to veterans caring for nonveterans. Learn more at

Your family member pays you

If your loved one can afford to pay you directly for home care, congratulations. You're an employee, and you'll need to pay federal, state and local taxes.
"If you're paid under the table, you're in violation of the law," warned Hyman G. Darling, an attorney in Springfield, Mass., and president-elect of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
As for accepting payment as a "gift," Darling says, don't. "People do it all the time, but it's not right. If someone makes a gift in return for services, it's no longer a gift. It's taxable to the recipient."
He suggests the caregiver consider training as a home health aide by an agency and then working directly for the agency, which will file the necessary paperwork. In some cases, the agency may be able to bill Medicaid or Medicare, he said. Check with your local Area Agency on Aging.
If your loved one planned ahead and has long-term care insurance, some hybrid policies allow payments to family caregivers.
It may seem odd, but if you become a family caregiver paid by the family member, sign a contract. It should specify the services being performed and the payment amount, Darling said.
The documentation will come in handy if the loved one later needs to qualify for Medicaid. Under the "look-back" provision, Medicaid will examine five years of records and could say the payments were a gift, Darling said. "If you're continuing to pay someone and not reporting the payments as taxable income, each payment extends the five-year period." And that could jeopardize your loved one from being qualified for Medicaid.
Marsha Mercer is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist

Write-in for president? Not so fast -- Oct. 20, 2016 column


You say you can’t stand voting for the presidential candidates on the ballot, so you’re going to write in Mickey Mouse, your own name -- or mine? Don’t. Really.  

Yes, several prominent Republicans say they will write in GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence for president because they can’t abide Donald Trump. They include Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona said he might write in the name of his buddy Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

The urge to protest the presidential choice is strong, but a write-in could be wrong. You might as well tear your ballot into tiny pieces and swallow them as write in someone’s name, even Pence or Bernie Sanders -- unless you do your homework.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, won a write-in campaign for re-election in 2010 after losing the GOP primary, but no write-in presidential candidate has ever won a single state.

Votes for a third party or write-in candidate could tip close states to one candidate or the other, however. Hillary Clinton finally called on Al Gore to make the point.

“Your vote really, really, really counts. A lot. You can consider me as an Exhibit A of that truth,” Gore said at a Clinton rally in Miami Oct. 11.

In the 2000 presidential election, Gore came within a whisker of winning Florida’s popular vote and the White House. Many Democrats still blame Ralph Nader for Gore’s loss.

It’s worth reviewing this bit of ancient history. In the official Florida tally, George W. Bush beat Gore by 537 votes – and Nader got 97,488 votes.

Nader was on the ballot as the Green Party presidential candidate, so his votes counted. Each state sets its own election rules, though, and many states are unfriendly to write-ins.

In 34 states, including Virginia, write-in presidential candidates must file papers with the state before the election. Otherwise their votes don’t count.

A write-in presidential candidate in Virginia needs to submit to the state a list of 13 electors at least 10 days before Election Day. Alabama does not require advanced paperwork, but Tennessee does.

In Florida, write-in presidential candidates must file an oath with the state in order to have a blank space provided for their names to be written in on the general election ballot.

A write-in presidential candidate in Florida must file the form and a list of electors “at any time after the 57th day, but before noon of the 49th day, prior to the date of the primary election in the year in which a presidential election is held,” according to Florida law.

Got that?

Only seven states allow voters to write in whomever they please for president, and nine states don’t allow presidential write-in votes at all.

Presidential candidates also must file with the Federal Election Commission. So far, more than 1,800 individuals have filed paperwork as presidential candidates with the FEC.

Clinton, Trump and Libertarian Gary Johnson are on ballots in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Green Party candidate Jill Stein is on the ballot in 44 states and D.C., and she has qualified as a write-in in three other states. 

Independent Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University, insists he has a shot largely as a write-in candidate at the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the White House.

On the ballot in only two states, Kotlikoff says by Election Day he will be registered as a write-in in all but one of the states that require certification.  

Independent Evan McMullin, a conservative who made news when a poll in usually red-state Utah put him in a tight race with Trump and Clinton, told NPR Sunday he is on the ballot in 11 states and will be on the ballot or certified as a write-in in 43 to 45 states by Election Day.

It’s totally understandable that voters appalled by Clinton and Trump would want to protest by writing in someone else’s name. The smart thing to do first: Check with your local election office whether a write-in vote for president will be tallied.

Make sure “your vote really, really, really counts.”

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Be careful what you wish for, `Mr. Brexit' -- Oct. 13, 2016 column


“She accused me of being an American!” the man from Ottawa said in mock horror.

It was early evening in a candlelit church in London and we were waiting for a classical music concert. I’d mistaken his Canadian accent for ours. Oh for the days when Canadians abroad conspicuously wore red maple leaf lapel pins.      

Exchanging pleasantries, we talked about where we were from, how long we’d be on vacation, what we’d seen, the unusually fine weather. Then, out of the blue, he said:

“I guess you’re glad to be away from the politics.”

Well, yes, absolutely. For nearly two weeks, I visited old friends, played tourist, avoided TV news and did not check Facebook or email for the latest indignities from the campaign trail.

I loved riding shotgun on the left as my friends drove us around beautiful Devon on country lanes so narrow that when cars meet, one has to back up. The motorist who finally moves forward waves in thanks. It’s a friendly, civilized and slow way to travel. 

There’s nothing like walking around Grimspound, prehistoric ruins of 24 stone round houses inside a stone wall dating to the Late Bronze Age, 1450 to 700 B.C., in Dartmoor National Park, to put America’s political screeching into perspective. The ugly presidential campaign could and would go on without me.

My hosts in Britain warned that people there would give me grief about Donald Trump, but that didn’t happen. The common reaction upon learning I was from Washington was pity.

People elsewhere treat Americans the way you would an acquaintance who’s gotten a bad medical diagnosis: gently concerned, sympathetic and not quite sure what to say. 

Even British pop music queen Adele told an audience in Washington the other night she’s embarrassed for Americans because of our election.

We don’t much like being pitied by people whose economy is suffering because they voted to “Make Britain Great Again” by leaving the European Union -- but it’s hard to say so until we see how Nov. 8 turns out.

How, the owner of our B&B in London asked, shaking his head sadly, had the American election come to a choice between two people as unpopular as Hillary Clinton and Trump? Naturally, like everyone else, he had a theory.

Trump never expected to get this far in his campaign. Running for president was just a way for the bored billionaire to boost his brand. As for Clinton, she’s been around too long and people are tired of her, the man said.

“Your people want change – just like here,” he said.

Be careful what you wish for, I thought.

The vote to leave the EU stemmed from the same kind of discontent that fueled Trump’s rise – a sense of loss of control and identity, a distrust of globalism and a desire to take the country back to some imaginary glory days.

Britons are just beginning to feel the bad effects of Brexit. The pound has dropped against the dollar to levels not seen since the1980s. A leaked U.K. Treasury report predicted a post-Brexit drop in the country’s Gross Domestic Product of perhaps 9.5 percent per year and tax revenue losses reaching 66 billion pounds per year.    

Trump calls himself “Mr. Brexit” and claims he will surprise everyone by winning on Election Day.

“This is like Brexit, folks,” Trump said in Pennsylvania the other day. “We want our independence back. We want our borders strong. We don’t want people coming in from Syria that we have no idea who the hell they are.”

Polls in Britain were close before the June vote, but it was thought Britain would remain in the EU. Almost three-quarters of eligible voters turned out, and 52 percent voted to leave and 48 percent to remain.

Clinton’s lead on Trump has widened nationally and in key swing states, polls show. Some analysts are calling the race over. It’s not. Polls usually tighten in the waning days of presidential campaigns. Plus the “unshackled” Trump is attacking Clinton in hopes of suppressing her vote.

As for me, I’d rather visit Britain than visit Brexit-like punishment on the United States. How about you?

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

You can afford a home-care worker --

You Can Afford a Home-Care Worker

There are resources for families who need caregiving help

You Can Afford a Home-Care Worker
Need home health care? We have resources to help defray the costs. — Getty Images
Planning for in-home care is a lot like the Chinese adage about planting a tree: The best time was 20 years ago, and second best is today.
Older Americans determined to stay in their own homes are likely to need help at some point — for a few hours a day or 24/7 — with personal care, household chores and nursing services.
"There's advanced planning, and there's crisis planning," says Hyman G. Darling, an estate attorney in Springfield, Mass., and president-elect of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
Those who plan ahead often buy long-term care insurance policies with home care benefits if they can afford them and qualify for them. Those without it often start out relying on an unpaid family caregiver.
"It's tough," Darling says.
About 1 in 3 people caring for someone at home (as opposed to a nursing home), said they had hired paid help in the past year, according to a 2015 survey by the AARP Public Policy Institute and National Alliance for Caregiving.
The median cost nationwide for either homemaker or home health aide services is upward of $125 a day, assuming 44 hours of care per week. The median cost for assisted living is comparable to 44 hours of home care a week (though far less than a nursing home), according to the Genworth 2016 Cost of Care Study. Costs vary by region, number of hours and level of care needed.

Here are tips for how you can afford home care, whether you're planning ahead or need help soon:

If you can plan ahead

If you're in your 50s, hooray! You're in your prime for advance planning to hire a home care worker when the time comes. You can invest, check out long-term care and life insurance policies with in-home care benefits — perhaps through an employer — and other products to cushion the high costs of home care.
"It's important for a person to purchase these policies when they're in good health and younger," says Rod Perkins, vice president of insurance regulation with the American Council of Life Insurers. "You don't want to wait until you need it."
The average age for purchasing long-term care insurance used to be in the 60s but has dropped to 57, Perkins said.
"Baby boomers have seen their parents have long-term care needs and weren't prepared," he says. "And it's not just an old-age product. You could need in-home care as a result of an accident."
Policies may include an elimination or waiting period before long-term benefits start, but it's wise to think of policies in the long run. The average claimant on a long-term care policy is 80+. Since you may pay premiums for decades, take time to compare policies and get the benefits you think you'll need and can afford in the long term.
Policies are changing to meet current demands, such as long-term care insurance benefits attached to life insurance policies.
"In the past, most long-term care policies were nursing-home only," Perkins says. But today, most long-term care policies are comprehensive and cover care in a variety of settings.
Download the free "A Shopper's Guide to Long-Term Care Insurance," by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the organization of state insurance regulators. Note: Do your homework to figure out if long-term care insurance is right for you. Some people, such as those with a pre-existing condition, are not able to afford or qualify for long-term care insurance.
If you need help now
If you're older and need help paying for in-home care sooner rather than later, you can search for services by location on the federal site See also and the National Council on Aging's to find out what programs you qualify for.
You can also search for services by location using the Eldercare Locator on
Homemaker services cover help with such tasks as eating and bathing, cooking and cleaning, and running errands. Home health aides provide a range of nonskilled or skilled medical services, from checking vital signs to nutrition therapy and wound care.
Medicare pays for medically necessary home health care on a limited basis but not for homemaker services. Medicare supplemental plans and health insurance through an employer generally do not cover home care.
Medicaid, the joint federal-state program for low-income people (or in some cases those with high costs), does pay for in-home care, some residential and assisted living care, and nursing home care. Each state runs its programs differently, however, and eligibility and benefits vary.
Eligible veterans may qualify for several Department of Veterans Affairs programs — Aid and Attendance, Housebound, Home and Community Based services — that help pay for care at home.
One little-known option: Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), a small but growing Medicare and Medicaid program aimed at keeping frail seniors out of nursing homes. It covers in-home care, checkups, dental and doctor care, hospital and nursing home stays, prescriptions and some transportation.
To be eligible, someone must be 55 or older, be certified by the state as in need of nursing home-level care (as certified by your state) and live in an area with a PACE organization. People with Medicare or Medicaid, or both, can qualify; some may be charged a monthly premium. Those not covered by Medicare or Medicaid can pay privately.
Although PACE has been around for decades, only about 40,000 people were enrolled as of Jan. 1, 2016. More than 110 organizations offered PACE programs in 32 states as of March.
Individual or group life insurance policies may have cash value the owner can use toward qualified home care expenses. With an accelerated death benefit, the company pays actual charges for long-term care up to a certain amount per day or month. It's typically capped at 50 percent of the death benefit.
A reverse mortgage could provide cash for home care, but the homeowner remains responsible for taxes, upkeep and other bills. Experts warn that you could run out of equity in your house and still need care. It's important to research reverse mortgages to see if they are right for you and take advantage of revere mortgage counseling.
"For the most part, the clients who have home care are private pay," says CPA Jerry Love, of Abilene, Texas, a frequent lecturer on financing retirement and long-term care for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
People cobble together a budget from savings, long-term care and life insurance and annuities, reverse mortgages or home equity loans.
It may be cheaper to hire a worker directly, rather than through an agency, but being an employer comes with responsibilities, Love warns.
"First you have to be sure you're paying the minimum wage," he says. "And if the person is working more than 40 hours a week, you must pay overtime."
Covered are workers who are family and friends, those paid privately or with Medicaid funds or some other combination.
If you're hiring and paying for home care for medical reasons or because the recipient is in the early stages of Alzheimer's or dementia, you may qualify for federal tax deduction, just as if the loved one were in a nursing home, Love says. An adult child may get a tax break if the parent can be claimed as a dependent. (The adult child must meet certain criteria, including that the family caregiver must be providing over half of the care recipient's financial report.)
Guided Imagery: The Beach - AARP
Whenever you have a few minutes, wherever you are, be transported you to a peaceful place where you feel relaxed and calm.

Private payers should also look into community support

"Tap into anything in the community you can apply for," Love says. Don't overlook churches, synagogues, the United Way, the local Area Agency on Aging office and senior centers.
They may steer you to adult day care, meal delivery programs, and grants for home modification, weatherization and assistance with heating bills. Such assistance may be enough for you or your loved one to remain independent and at home.
If you're the family caregiver, you may be eligible for a voucher to pay a neighbor or friend to help out.
Respite care vouchers are funded by the federal government as well as by private organizations, such as Easter Seals, the Alzheimer's Association and the ALS Association.
In Virginia, for example, a family caregiver who lives with the care recipient may apply for a federal respite grant voucher of up to $400 through the Virginia Division for the Aging. About 200 families a year, many of whom do not receive Medicaid, receive the grants.
"It's a chance for the caregiver to take a break and rejuvenate," says Liz Havenner, Division of Aging human services program director. "They may just want to take a nap."

Monday, October 10, 2016

Ready for the Electoral College? Take our quiz -- Oct. 6, 2016 column

Every four years, millions of Americans go to the polls and vote for . . . a slate of electors. Take our 10-question quiz to brush up on the Electoral College. Answers are below. No peeking – and no Googling!

  1. What is the Electoral College?
A.      Scholars that wrote election law in the 19th century
B.      The process for electing the president and vice president that dates to the 18th century
C.      The undisclosed location where elected officials learn law-making
D.      A reality TV show  

2.       Why do we have an Electoral College?

A.      The Constitution states that the “Electoral College” shall choose the president if no candidate gets a majority of the popular vote
B.      Every president since George Washington has signed an executive order creating one
C.      It’s a compromise between electing the president by congressional vote or by  popular vote of qualified people
D.      The Supreme Court said so

3.   Who gets to be in the Electoral College?
A. Any elected official  
B. Anyone who is not a member of Congress or a federal official
C. Only registered voters  
D. Only donors to the Republican and Democratic parties

4. True or false: Electors are legally bound to vote for the presidential candidate who wins the most votes in their state.

5. The House of Representatives has 435 members, and there are 100 senators. How many electors are in the Electoral College?

A. 100
B. 435
C. 535
D. 538

6.  What happens if no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes -- 270?   

A. The Senate elects the president from the top two electoral vote-getters
B. The House of Representatives elects the president from the top three electoral vote-getters
C. The Supreme Court elects the president
D. The 50 governors elect the president

7. Is it possible for the winner of the nationwide popular vote for president not to win the electoral vote?

A.      No, the candidate who wins the most popular votes always wins
B.      Yes, because the popular vote does not choose the president. The Electoral College does.
C.      Yes, because all but two states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis.
D.      B and C

8. How often has the winner of the nationwide popular vote for president not won the electoral vote?

A. Never
B. Once
C. Twice
D. Four times     

9. Where do the electors meet to cast their ballots?

     A. Electors from every state gather in Independence Hall in Philadelphia
     B. Electors gather in the U.S. Capitol
     C. Electors from each state meet in their states, usually in the state Capitol
     D. Online

10. True or False. Congress could pass a law eliminating the Electoral College.

Bonus Question:  What happens on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December every four years?  

  1. B.  The framers of the Constitution agreed on our indirect system of elections in 1787.
  2. C.  The framers compromised on having “electors” choose the president and vice president. The words “electoral college” are not in the Constitution, but “electors” appears in Article II and the 12th Amendment. We started using the term electoral college in the 19th century and it’s now in federal law.
  3. B. Under the Constitution, only U.S. senators, representatives and anyone holding “an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” are prohibited from being electors.
  4. False. Neither the Constitution nor federal law requires electors to follow the popular vote. Many states have such laws, but not all. 
5.       D. One for each House member and senators and three for the District of Columbia, which is treated as a state, thanks to the 23rd Amendment.

6.       B. Each state’s delegation gets one vote.  The Senate would elect the vice president from the top two VP electoral candidates, with each senator having one vote.

  1. D. Only Maine and Nebraska award their electoral votes on a proportional basis.
  2. D. In 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.
  3. C. The Electoral College never meets as one big group.
  4. False. To change or eliminate the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment.
Bonus: That’s the day electors meet in each state to elect the president and vice president. This year it’s Dec. 19.
Want to make your own Electoral College predictions? Check out the National Archives’ interactive map at   

SCORING: 10 points for each correct answer, plus 5 points for the bonus.
85 to 100 – You win the Electoral College bowl.
70 to 85 – Tenure at the Electoral College is yours.
55 to 70 – Politicians crave numbers like these.
45 to 55 – Your insight is blog-worthy.
25 to 40 – Don’t believe everything you read online.
Below 25 – There’s always 2020.

SOURCES:  U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Congressional Research Service, U.S. Department of State, U.S. House Offices of Historian and Art and Archives

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer


Why VP debate is worth watching -- Sept. 29, 2016 column


If you’re tempted to skip this week’s vice presidential debate because Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won’t be there, you might want to reconsider.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana are amiable fellows who rarely throw a first punch, but don’t hold that against them.

Both have had experience in the debate ring and know how to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

People vote for the top of the ticket, but whoever becomes vice president likely will do a lot more than attend the funerals of world leaders. Plus, one of the men onstage at Longwood University Tuesday night might be president someday. Fourteen veeps have become president, eight after the death of the sitting president.

Vice presidential debates are lower-key affairs than presidential matchups, but over the years the second tier has brought its share of verbal fisticuffs, gaffes and memorable moments.

The dust-up in the 1984 vice presidential debate between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro is a classic example of “manslaining.”

“Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon,” said Bush, then vice president and a former ambassador to China and the United Nations.

The first woman vice presidential nominee and eight-term House member riposted:
“Let me first of all say that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”

Perhaps the most famous VP debate moment ever was four years later, when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, a courtly and dignified senator from Texas, eviscerated callow Dan Quayle, Republican senator from Indiana.

Quayle, boyish at 41 and perceived by many as unqualified to be vice president, said he had as much congressional experience as Jack Kennedy did when he ran for president.

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen shot back.

Bush and Quayle won the election, but Bentsen went home with the zinger of the year trophy.

In 1992, James Stockdale, running mate of third-party candidate Ross Perot, uttered the seven words that still live in vice presidential debate parody: “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Stockdale was a retired admiral, one of the most highly decorated Navy officers in history. He had spent seven years as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. But he was unknown to most Americans. Sadly, his debate performance made him a figure of fun.
This time, there will be no third-party candidate onstage. Neither the Libertarian nor the Green party met the Commission on Presidential Debates’ criteria for participating in the first presidential and the only vice presidential debate. That’s a shame for the millions of Americans who would like more choices.

In a year in which many voters find the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees scary, debate-watchers may find Kaine and Pence reassuring. They came up through the states and know compromise is necessary.

Pence, after losing one of the nastiest congressional races in Indiana history, once wrote an essay titled, “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” in which he stated, “Negative campaigning is wrong.”

Asked how he could square that view with Trump’s campaign style, Pence told Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week”: “Things are a little different here in Indiana than they are in New York City. People talk a little different than they do sometimes about things.”
Raddatz then asked Kaine about Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment when she said some of Trump’s supporters are “irredeemable.” Was that word appropriate? 

“That’s not a word I would use. I wouldn’t use it,” Kaine said, although he added, “I think we would be unrealistic to think that some people are going to fundamentally change their view.”

Come January, either Kaine or Pence likely will be the president’s liaison to Congress, playing a key role in setting the policy agenda.

For voters unhappy with Clinton and Trump, this undercard could make the choice more palatable.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.