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History geek with unique role in this year’s national election hopes to inspire students

Grandville — If Blake Mazurek’s students didn’t know much about the Electoral College before this year, they’re certainly getting a firsthand look at the process now.

Mazurek, a U.S. history teacher at Grandville Middle School, is also the 2020 Democratic elector for Michigan’s third congressional district. In this role, he cast one of Michigan’s 16 unanimous electoral votes on Monday for president-elect Joe Biden. The vote solidified the state’s choice for Biden, as determined by the public votes cast on Nov. 3 and certified by the Board of State Canvassers on Nov. 23. 

“This is like ‘History Geek 101,’” Mazurek said. “Of course it’s exciting — I jumped at (the opportunity) immediately.

“I am steeped in American history, but especially this era when the Electoral College was being formed, because that’s exactly what I teach — the Constitution right on through to Reconstruction.”

During the 90-minute ceremony, held in the Senate chamber of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, Mazurek had the honor of seconding the formal nomination of Kamala Harris to serve as vice president. Harris will be the nation’s first female vice president, and for Mazurek, helping further this historic milestone was the most memorable part of his day. 

“I literally had tears welling in my eyes when I returned to my seat,” he said. “I thought of my wife and daughter and every woman in our country while performing this honor. The weight of the moment was not lost on me.”

The 2020 meeting of the Michigan Electoral College came as what authorities deemed “credible threats” led to the closure of the Capitol to the public and to order the closure of House and Senate offices. Since the election, unproven allegations of voter fraud have led to heated protests in some battleground states, including Michigan.

Despite those issues, Mazurek said his concerns “evaporated” with the presence of Michigan State Police, who escorted electors to and from the Capitol. And while other electors preferred to keep a low profile this year, he was happy to share his experiences to demonstrate how the American democratic process works. 

“The history-teacher side of me believes that our system of government relies on the idea of transparency for its citizens — at least, it should be transparent, and so our citizens should know who our electors are,” he said. “We’re regular folks; we live right in your neighborhoods. We don’t descend from an ivory tower to do this. And even though I personally have strong reservations in the Electoral College as a mechanism for electing a president, this is the system we have, and I am honored to fulfill the duty of an elector.”

The Electoral College, A Primer

Monday was the day set by law for electors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cast their ballots. But Mazurek has known about his elector status since this summer. An active member in the Kent County Democratic Party, he was nominated for the role at the congressional district convention in August. 

The state of Michigan has 16 electors in the Electoral College, one for each of the congressional districts and two at-large electors representing its U.S. Senate seats. In Michigan and most other states, electors are required by law to cast their vote for the candidate who won the most votes in the state. President-elect Biden received approximately 154,000 more votes than President Donald Trump, as certified by the Board of State Canvassers. 

“…For these kids, knowing me as an elector brings the subject matter alive. They know who I am, and it gives them a real lesson in civics, about our responsibility as citizens and what we do, and how our system works.”

— Blake Mazurek, Grandville Middle School teacher and Michigan elector

Switching into history-teacher mode, Mazurek explained: “Something that we tend to forget is that when you vote for president in this country, regardless of who you’re voting for, you’re technically voting for your electors — you’re voting for me, in a sense — to go and cast the ballot for the person you want me to cast it for.”

During Monday’s ceremony, each elector cast two paper ballots: one for Biden and one for Harris. They then had to sign six identical copies of the electors’ certificate of votes. One copy will be sent to Congress in Washington, to be used in the final national vote tally on Jan. 6. The others will be distributed to other locations for safekeeping, including to the U.S. archivist and to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

That there are so many documents to sign has a historical purpose, too, the history teacher said. 

“The reason they had multiple copies was, think about the old days when you’re going places on a wagon. If this important document falls off into the dirt and mud, you want to have a backup. So these are essentially backups, in case something were to happen.”

The view from Mazurek’s seat on the Senate floor as Gov.Gretchen Whitmer opens Monday’s proceedings (courtesy)

A Living, Breathing Civics Lesson

A 27-year history teacher, Mazurek has always taught the Electoral College as part of his eighth-grade curriculum. In every other year, he said, he has kept his personal politics out of it. But this year, given the very public nature of his appointed position, he had a little fun breaking the news to his students. 

“I went through the whole lesson, explaining the whole complicated process of how everything was set up,” he said. “And then at the very end I just kind of dropped the bomb on them: ‘By the way, I’m one of these electors for Michigan,’ and for a minute there was just a lot of head tilts, like, ‘Huh?’ So that was a lot of fun.” 

When word spread of his elector role this fall, he also found opportunities to teach history outside of his own classroom. As president of the Grandville Education Association, he often visits other school buildings when they’re not learning remotely. 

“I stopped to chit-chat with a friend of mine in her fourth-grade classroom, and the next thing you know I’m doing an impromptu lesson to fourth-graders on the Electoral College, and they’re getting all excited,” he said. “So she was going to have her kids tune in to watch (the live-stream), and that’s neat to see. 

“Because me, the history geek, I’ve read countless books and articles and listened to podcasts on the Electoral College — but for these kids, knowing me as an elector brings the subject matter alive. They know who I am, and it gives them a real lesson in civics, about our responsibility as citizens and what we do, and how our system works.”

Despite his reservations with the Electoral College as an institution, Mazurek stressed that this system of government does, in fact, work — but said it needs everyone’s participation. He hopes his small role in this year’s election will inspire students to seek out ways to be more civically involved, whether that’s eventually becoming a regular voter or even running for office. 

“In the entire history of Michigan, since we became a state in 1837, I am one of only 690 people in our entire state history that’s ever been an elector,” he said. “Will I be written about in history books? Gosh, I hope not. But to serve the state — to fulfill the constitutional duty, if you will — is a neat thing, and it’s neat to share that excitement with my students.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio or email Beth.

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