Furthermore, yams are not roots. The flesh of a sweet potato consists of the carbohydrates the plant has stored in root form, but a yam is an underground stem, or tuber. (Some sources distinguish between stem tubers and root tubers—according to these sources, sweet potatoes are also tubers. Regardless, sweet potatoes are derived from roots and yams are derived from stems.)
Compared to the familiar, American sweet potato, yams—which are native to Africa and Asia—are drier and starchier, with rougher skin. Yam flesh comes in a variety of colors, from off-white to pink or purple. (For that matter, sweet potatoes are also different colors; some have yellow rather than orange flesh.) As seen in the photograph at right, yams can grow quite large.
image downloaded from Wikimedia Commons
In the United States, at least, yam and sweet potato are often used interchangeably to describe the root vegetable with moist, orange flesh that looks like this:
images downloaded from Pixabay
Unless you live near a West African or Caribbean grocery, however, you have probably never eaten an actual yam. Yams and sweet potatoes are distinct species of plant—in fact, they don’t even belong to the same basic category of plant.
This page lists additional differences between yams and sweet potatoes.
Why do some people call sweet potatoes yams?
I’ve encountered several theories, but the likeliest explanation—supported by writers for the Smithsonian and Library of Congress—dates back several centuries, to when Americans were mainly familiar with yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes. The West African word for the food we call yam is nyami (or at least it is similar to nyami—I haven’t found a definitive source). When the orange-fleshed sweet potato was introduced to U.S. markets, African slaves called the vegetables nyami. English speakers shortened nyami to yam, and the new word stuck—it proved a useful way to distinguish orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from the yellow-fleshed variety. Today, sweet potatoes are labeled “yams” in many stores, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires such labels also to note the vegetable’s true identity as a sweet potato. (Multiple sources emphasize this last detail, though I couldn’t find a USDA webpage to confirm it.)
What is the electoral college?
The electoral college is the mechanism by which the president and vice president of the United States are elected. (Per Merriam-Webster, a college is “an organized body of persons engaged in a common pursuit or having common interests or duties,” or “a group of persons considered by law to be a unit.”)
Electors are first mentioned in Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
There are currently 538 electors (hence the name of Nate Silver’s website):
Note that the Constitution gives each state legislature the power to determine how its electors are appointed. In other words, there is no constitutional right to vote for presidential electors; should its legislators so choose, any state could choose its electors through some method other than a popular vote—as was often the case during the nation’s first few decades.
Today, of course, every state holds a popular election for its presidential and vice presidential electors. In 1845, Congress fixed the date of this election as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of a year divisible by four.
How does the electoral college work?
Prior to Election Day
During a presidential election (and a vice presidential election—technically, these are separate elections), people vote for the electors who represent a particular political party. So first each party must choose its slate of electors for each state where it appears on the ballot. (In what follows, “state” refers also to the District of Columbia.) Keep in mind that each state has its own ballot. As our two major parties, the Democratic and Republican Parties automatically appear on every state’s ballot, but other parties must meet certain criteria. (You can find links to ballot access laws for each state here.) In the 2016 election, for example, the Libertarian Party also appeared on every state’s ballot, but the Green Party appeared on the ballot in only 44 states, and the Constitution Party appeared in only 24 states. I remain unsure how electors are chosen for independent or write-in candidates—probably because, to my knowledge, no such candidate has ever threatened to win an electoral vote—but I assume each state has laws for such a contingency. (This blog, for what it’s worth, is interesting speculation.) Thus, in what follows I shall focus on party nominees rather than independent or write-in candidates.
Prior to Election Day each political party represented on the ballot in a state must deliver to that state’s board of elections a list of the party’s electors: one elector for each electoral vote. Different parties in different states have different processes for choosing electors—you can read state-by-state summaries here—but it’s generally safe to assume that a party chooses loyalists who can be counted on to vote for its presidential and vice presidential nominees. The Constitution sets few restrictions:
On Election Day
On Election Day, ballots list each party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees (but not, in most states, the party’s electors), along with any independent candidates. Each voter may cast one vote for a ticket consisting of both nominees for a party; states do not give voters the option to “split” their ticket by selecting the presidential nominee from one party and the vice presidential nominee from another party. Thus, a typical state’s ballot gives the false impression that voters are choosing a pair of candidates, when in fact they are choosing a slate of electors who shall likely, but not necessarily, vote for the desired candidates. (More on this uncertainty below.)
When the polls close in a state, the votes are tallied and the winning ticket is announced. In 48 states plus the District of Columbia, the ticket that wins a plurality of votes statewide receives all the electoral votes for that state, regardless of the margin of victory. In fact, no official votes have yet been cast; instead, as described in the next section, the party whose nominees win a state’s popular vote shall send its entire slate of electors for that state to vote for president and vice president.
In contrast, two states—Maine and Nebraska—use the district system to award electoral votes. In these states, two electoral votes (one per senator) are awarded to the winner of the statewide popular vote, and one electoral vote is awarded to the winner of each of the state’s congressional districts (one per representative).
After Election Day
The results of the election, though typically consistent with the popular vote, are not official until the electors cast their votes.
Why do we have an electoral college?
Unlike for previous sections of this post, the question of why the electoral college exists does not have a certain answer—or if it does, I couldn’t find it online. There seem to be two common explanations:
While both explanations seem reasonable, and I do not doubt they are partly correct, neither seems to capture the whole truth. If the framers were so concerned about the quality of the men electing the president, it’s curious they should not have included in the Constitution any words specifying the qualifications of electors, except to say they should not be senators, representatives, or other federal employees. As for the argument about population, “the deepest political divisions in America have always run not between big and small states, but between the north and the south, and between the coasts and the interior.”
This last claim is by Akhil Reed Amar, who argues that “the troubling reason the electoral college exists” is slavery. Specifically, if the president were popularly elected, northern states would have been advantaged over southern states, whose populations included large numbers of non-voting slaves. The electoral college, as envisioned by the framers, did more than simply balance northern and southern interests—by allowing states to count each slave as three-fifths of a free person, it tipped the advantage decisively south. (Technically the three-fifths compromise applied to the House of Representatives, per Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution. But of course the majority of presidential electors apportioned to most states equals the state’s delegation to the House.) As Amar points out, in eight of the first nine presidential elections (George Washington though James Monroe), the winner was a slaveholder from Virginia, which thanks to its slaves received more electoral votes than any other state.
How can we eliminate the electoral college?
Amar’s ultimate point is to ask whether Americans should retain an institution that, if he is correct, was invented to redistribute political power to slaveholders. But eliminating the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment; to amend the constitution, two-thirds of the House and Senate most vote for the amendment, which three-fourths of state legislatures must then ratify. (An amendment may also be proposed if two-thirds of state legislatures call for a constitutional convention; no amendment has ever been passed in this way, however.)
Another possibility would be to render the electoral college irrelevant. Remember, there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent each state from awarding its electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide, rather than the statewide, popular vote. Indeed, this is the goal of the National Popular Vote initiative. Currently, 11 states (including the District of Columbia) worth 165 electoral votes have passed a bill pledging to award all their electoral votes to the national winner of the popular vote, but only in the event that states worth another 105 electoral votes pass such a bill. (165 plus 105 equals 270, the majority needed to win the presidency.) So if you oppose the electoral college and you live in a state that has not passed a National Popular Vote bill, urge your legislators to do so.