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AMERICAN MOSAIC - How the Electoral College Works ... - 2004-10-29

Broadcast: October 29, 2004


DOUG JOHNSON: Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC, in VOA Special English.

This is Doug Johnson. On our show this week:

A listener asks how the Electoral College works ...

A look at some body art ...

And a musical history of the Apollo Theater.

Body Art

Body art is the use of the human body as a form of self-expression. Tattooing and piercing are both forms of body art. And, as Faith Lapidus tells us, both have become more socially acceptable in the United States.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Tattooing is the art of injecting colors into the skin to create designs. Piercing is putting holes in the body for wearing jewelry.

Ancient societies used body art to represent many different things, including social position and religious beliefs. In the United States, tattoos were considered mostly for military men or laborers, or young people who disobeyed their parents.

But in recent years, all kinds of people have gotten tattoos -- men, women, teachers, entertainers. Some tattoos are small and hidden under clothes. But it is not so unusual these days to see young men with colorful designs that cover their arms. Some young women have large tattoos across their lower back.

Piercing used to be just for ears. But now other parts include lips, noses, eyebrows and navels.

Piercing and tattooing can involve serious risks, in addition to pain and bleeding. There is the risk of infection and the spread of disease if the artist is not careful about cleanliness.

Of course, people may later regret their decision to get a permanent tattoo. Removal is costly and painful. So some people get a temporary one, like mehndi. Mehndi is a traditional body art done with henna, which comes from a plant. It washes off in a few weeks.

Electoral College

DOUG JOHNSON: Our VOA listener question this week comes from South Africa. Clifford Riffel in Atlantis writes: "I keep hearing about an Electoral College. How does it work?" It works this way:

When Americans vote for president and vice president next Tuesday, their votes will not go to the candidates. Instead, Americans vote for electors to represent them in what is known as the Electoral College.

The founders of the nation thought appointed representatives should make the choice. They saw this as a compromise between having Congress elect a president and having the people do it directly. They borrowed an idea from the ancient Holy Roman Empire. Back then, a number of princes of German states acted as electors of the king.

The term "college" comes from Latin. It can mean any group of people who act together for a common purpose. The Constitution talks about "electors," but never uses the term "electoral college." Yet Americans were calling it that by the early eighteen hundreds.

Different states have different laws on the appointment of electors. But political parties often nominate people to recognize their service to their party. In some states, the names of the electors appear on the ballot, below the names of the candidates.

The number of electors in each state equals the number or representatives and senators that the state has in Congress. This depends on population. So, states with more people have more electoral votes. California has the most – fifty-five.

In all, there are five hundred thirty-eight votes in the Electoral College. To become president, a candidate must win more than half, or at least two hundred seventy. If there is a tie, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives.

In general, the candidate with the most popular votes in a state wins all the electoral votes in that state. Two of the fifty states, Maine and Nebraska, no longer have a winner-takes-all system. And on Tuesday, voters in Colorado will consider a ballot measure that proposes a similar change.

Their nine electoral votes would be divided by the share of the popular vote that each candidate receives. The proposal calls for the change to take effect immediately.

No federal law requires electors to vote for the candidate who won the most votes in their state. Some states, however, do have such laws.

Usually, the candidate who wins in the popular vote nationwide also wins in the Electoral College, but not always. In two thousand, for example, Al Gore received half a million more votes than George W. Bush. But Mister Bush won the electoral vote when the Supreme Court ruled, five to four, to halt a recount of the ballots in Florida. The state was decided by five hundred thirty-seven votes.

Critics of the Electoral College system call it undemocratic, difficult to understand and dangerous to the political system. Supporters say it helps to guarantee the rights of states with small populations. They say it also requires candidates to reach out to many states, not just those with large populations.

There have been hundreds of proposals in Congress to end or reform the Electoral College. But amending the Constitution is a difficult process.

In any case, this year the election of the president and vice president will not take place, officially, until December thirteenth. That is the day for electors in each state and the District of Columbia to meet to choose America's leaders for the next four years.

To learn more about the Electoral College, go to We have a link to information from the Federal Register.

Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater in New York City celebrated its seventieth anniversary this year. Steve Ember takes us inside this historic place.

STEVE EMBER: The Apollo Theater is in Harlem, the traditional center of African American life in New York. The Apollo calls itself a place "where stars are born and legends are made."

Many singers, dancers and other artists have become famous after they performed there. One of them was Ella Fitzgerald. She performed at the Apollo for the first time in nineteen thirty-four, the year it opened.

Four years later, she recorded her first big hit, ”A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”


Singer James Brown recorded a performance at the Apollo Theater in nineteen sixty-two. The following year, he released an album. Here, from “Live at the Apollo,” is James Brown with “Living In America.”


In recent years, the Apollo stage has been a stepping-stone for performers like Lauryn Hill. Her music combines rap, reggae, soul and hip-hop. She wrote and produced her nineteen ninety-eighty album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”

We leave you with a song called “Doo Wop (That Thing).”



This is Doug Johnson.

Send your questions about American life to American Mosaic, VOA Special English, Washington, D.C., two-zero-two-three-seven, USA.

Or write to Please include your full name and postal address. And if you e-mail us a picture of yourself, we'll post it at

Our program was written by Jill Moss, Lawan Davis and Brian Kim. Caty Weaver was our producer.

I hope you enjoyed AMERICAN MOSAIC. Join us again next week for VOA’s radio magazine in Special English.