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Jay Philbrick, 18, is an elector for Maine in the U.S. Electoral College.Handout

In a two-storey home on a rural street in a Maine town of 1,297 households a few miles from the Atlantic, Mom sits in the living room, reading the newspaper. Dad is in his dental office, examining a patient for cavities. Their 18-year-old son has just finished his final exam in a remote-learning course on economics. He’s hanging around waiting for lunch, leftover pasta in vegetable sauce from the night before.

On Monday he will be one of the 538 people who will choose the president of the United States.

Jay Philbrick, who will enter Brown University next month, is one of Maine’s four members of the Electoral College. A central figure in one of the most misunderstood aspects of American politics, he is at once both powerful (he will provide one of the 270 electoral votes required to select the next occupant of the White House) and powerless (he is legally bound to vote for Joe Biden, though his heart is with Senator Bernie Sanders, Mr. Biden’s principal rival in the months-long fight for the Democratic presidential nomination).

Last month’s American political contest, when more than 161 million Americans voted by mail or in person, wasn’t really the presidential election.

That balloting – and the multiple court fights Mr. Trump and his allies undertook – were simply the prelude to the real contest, conducted in 50 state capitals across the country Monday, where little-known men and women will cast their votes, often with little ceremony in places such as Augusta, Me., and Frankfort, Ky., and Pierre, S.D., where hardly anyone will watch and, most years, where hardly anyone will know and even fewer will care.

NUMBER OF ELECTORS PER STATE

NORTHEAST REGION

ME: 4

VT: 3

NH: 4

NY: 29

MA: 11

RI: 4

CT: 7

PA: 20

NJ: 14

MIDWEST REGION

MN

10

ND: 3

WI

10

MI

16

SD: 3

IA: 6

NE: 5

IN

11

OH: 18

IL

20

MO

10

KS: 6

SOUTH REGION

MD: 10

DE: 3

DC: 3

WV: 5

VA: 13

KY: 8

NC: 15

TN: 11

OK: 7

AR

6

SC: 9

AL

9

GA

16

MS

6

LA

8

TX: 38

FL

29

WEST REGION

WA: 12

MT: 3

OR: 7

ID

4

WY: 3

NV: 6

UT: 6

CA

55

CO: 9

AZ: 11

NM: 5

AK

3

HI

4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS;

U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

NUMBER OF ELECTORS PER STATE

NORTHEAST REGION

ME: 4

VT: 3

NY: 29

MA: 11

RI: 4

CT: 7

PA: 20

NJ: 14

NH: 4

MIDWEST REGION

MN

10

ND: 3

WI

10

MI

16

SD: 3

IA: 6

NE: 5

IN

11

OH: 18

IL

20

MO

10

KS: 6

SOUTH REGION

MD: 10

DE: 3

DC: 3

WV: 5

VA: 13

KY: 8

NC: 15

TN: 11

OK: 7

AR

6

SC: 9

AL

9

GA

16

MS

6

LA

8

TX: 38

FL

29

WEST REGION

WA: 12

MT: 3

OR: 7

ID

4

WY: 3

NV: 6

UT: 6

CA

55

CO: 9

AZ: 11

NM: 5

AK

3

HI

4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS; U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

NUMBER OF ELECTORS PER STATE

WA: 12

VT: 3

ME: 4

MT: 3

MN

10

ND: 3

OR: 7

ID

4

NY

29

MA: 11

WI

10

MI

16

SD: 3

RI: 4

WY: 3

CT: 7

PA: 20

IA: 6

NH: 4

NV: 6

NE: 5

IN

11

NJ: 14

OH: 18

IL

20

UT: 6

CA

55

CO: 9

DE: 3

WV: 5

MO

10

KS: 6

VA: 13

KY: 8

MD: 10

NC: 15

DC: 3

TN: 11

AZ: 11

OK: 7

AR

6

NM: 5

SC: 9

AL

9

GA

16

MS

6

LA

8

TX: 38

FL

29

AK

3

HI

4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

It is one of the peculiarities of the American political system, which never does anything – conduct elections, enact legislation, confirm judges – with 21st century efficiency, mostly because the architecture of American politics was conceived in 18th century leisure with the reason and logic of the Enlightenment.

Indeed, the American Founders – wealthy planters, intellectuals, local politicos, and onetime colonial revolutionaries – did not conceive that an election of the chief magistrate of the country could be determined by someone like Jay, who is not a landowner and who only turned 18 on June 24. No matter. On Monday he will retreat to a small chamber in Augusta and help make Mr. Biden the president.

There won’t be any organ music. No pomp and circumstance. No debate. No controversy, though four years ago David Bright, one of the Maine electors pledged to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, tried to cast a vote for Mr. Sanders. When he was told he would be charged with a misdemeanour if he did so, he demurred and voted for Ms. Clinton.

Mr. Philbrick is both a symbol of the idiosyncrasies of American politics and of the idealism of the new crop of American young people.

Which is why he sought this obscure task in the first place.

“I’m really committed to getting young people involved in the political process,’' he said in an interview. “There are a lot of issues that are important to us and relevant to us. And I saw being a presidential elector as a way to inspire other young people to realize that it is never too early to work for change. And part of that is when people realize the importance of the political process, they may see how easy it is to get involved and it may drive up voting participation – both good habits for democracy and civic engagement.”

He transformed his wild idea into reality by sending 2,000 text messages, one at a time, to Democrats across Maine and then winning an election for the position at the state party convention.

Mr. Philbrick holds his high-school diploma from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.Handout

This is not exactly what his parents had in mind for their youngest of three children. They’d rather he became a dentist.

“We see the conflict in the politicalization of health care in our country,’' said his mother, Sadhana Prasad, also a dentist. “We don’t particularly like politics. But we wouldn’t discourage him from doing something he is passionate about, even though we would rather he went into health care.’'

But Maine’s Senator Angus King is glad he’s drawn to politics. “It’s exceptional for an 18-year-old to play this role,” he said. “What we need in our country right now is more youth engagement.”

The young elector is the personification of that. He was the founder of his high school Quiz Show team, was part of a group that created a system to grow and harvest algae on rooftops for feedstock production, and was nominated by GOP Senator Susan Collins to be a Senate page. Right now he is shaping a Maine Democracy Project undertaking to provide scholarships and internships for young people interested in politics.

“Seeing how my parents disliked politics drove me to get involved,” he said. “A lot of politics is really frustrating and it seems like nothing is getting done. That’s all the more reason for me to get involved, and all the more reason for other young people to [take] a keen interest in what is going on so they can change things.”

One thing he would like to change is the very Electoral College of which he is a member.

“I don’t think in its current state it is exactly serving its purpose,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair and representative. Like a lot of our system, it has evolved over time, and that is not inherently a bad thing, but the debate about the continuation of this system is something we have to have.”


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