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Picking a president the Old Dominion way.

Book It


It's high noon on Dec. 18, 2000, as Virginia's 13 electors march confidently in single file into the old House of Delegates chamber at the state Capitol. Gov. Jim Gilmore tails them closely, a shepherd tending his sheep. They form a semicircle in front of wooden desks labeled with their names, their districts or at-large designations and their hometowns. The governor is announced. Some clap and smile enthusiastically. Others keep a straight face. Facing them is a giddy flock of dark suits and the occasional red or blue dress. At the very front are the electors' relatives. To their right, stone-faced like the statues decorating the room, stand a dozen reporters and photographers. There is much clicking of pictures and videotaping. You can almost hear people thinking: This is important, this is something, this is history. There's definitely a sense of importance, service and tradition during the 75-minute session. But if anybody's looking for defectors, they're in the wrong statehouse. The festivities officially begin with Gilmore's welcome speech, which overflows with references to Alexander Hamilton, a staunch supporter of the Electoral College. Gilmore says the elector system "stands as a symbol of government for people by the people." At the end, Gilmore mentions George W. Bush as a friend who supported him during his campaign in 1997. The governor mentions how he was honored to be a co-chairman of the national campaign this year. (Within a week, Bush will make Gilmore the head of the Republican National Committee.) The electors are dressed in business suits and dresses. They conduct themselves with excruciatingly precise etiquette. When they speak, they often begin by saying, "It's an honor and a privilege…." The electors do things the Virginia way, which is to say the old way. This makes Richmond unlike some state capitals. In Alabama, for example, as part of the Electoral College hoopla some people have dressed up like James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. Not here. To commemorate the occasion Virginia's electors and politicians bought a book to hand-write their minutes, just like the 19th-century electors. Interestingly enough, they got the idea from a book that hadn't been used since 1856. It was stolen by Union soldiers in 1865 and carried off to Maine. The book was returned to Virginia in 1877. That year, by the way, is in the running to be the most-disputed election in U.S. history. Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, won the presidency by one Electoral College vote, though he lost the popular election by about 250,000 votes. (Virginia's electors voted for Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic candidate.) That postelection fight was at least as heated as the one between Bush and Gore — a special commission of the U.S. Congress was called to settle it — and for years Hayes was derided by his enemies as "Rutherfraud." But this year, it's Bush's turn, and the meeting goes like clockwork. The electors write their minutes into the book. The electors and the officials in the room sign it. Vincent Callahan, a longtime house member of the General Assembly, is elected the electors' president; Patsy Drain of Fairfax is elected secretary. It's time for the big vote. The Virginia ballot is an oversized business card the color of a manila folder. It's inscribed with the state seal and the words "For President of the United States of America George W. Bush of the State of Texas." Young Capitol pages, dressed in blazers and dresses, quickly pass out the ballots. (One of the pages is Gilmore's son, Jay.) As the electors are handed their ballots, Callahan jokes that if someone makes a mistake signing the ballot, "throw it away." The electors sign. Afterward, some of them hold their ballots up and smile politely for the cameras. Drain begins the formal count, and the electors joke and laugh amongst themselves. The only unscripted part of whole session is when Drain forgets to include the "W" in Bush's name when reading the votes of the first two electors. She apologizes and corrects the mistake quickly. Then she reads her tally: It's unanimous for Bush. The electors' "Aye" makes the vote official. Book it, it's done. It's certified. Now the electors need to prepare numerous copies of the Certificates of the Vote to be sent to various national and state governmental bodies like the U.S. Senate. This will take some time, Callahan says. So most people file out. Gilmore departs soon after. The Certificates of the Vote will be sent to, among other people, the head of the U.S. Senate. That, of course, would be Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr. "You don't know," Callahan says with a smile, "how much pleasure that gives

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