Timely Answer to 'Where'd You Go to School?'

October 24, 2008

Higher education has gotten short shrift from the candidates during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the Electoral College will continue to capture the attention of Barack Obama, John McCain, voters and the press for at least the next several weeks, and that's very good news for John and Marcia Diamond.

That's because the Maine couple -- both are longtime politicos, and he is executive director of external relations for the University of Maine System -- had the bright idea in 1994 of trademarking any reference to "Electoral College" as an educational entity. Their company is now the sole merchandiser of hats, t-shirts -- and yes, honorary degrees -- from what they call, depending on the marketing pitch, "America's Original Party School" and its "Most Selective Four-Year Institution."

Business is strongest, of course, in presidential election years like this one, and John Diamond says orders picked up earlier than usual this year and have stayed strong (though they'll have to go a ways to equal 2000, when the contested election in Florida thrust the "other" Electoral College into the spotlight as never before).

That the Diamonds were able to trademark "Electoral College" seems surprising at first, until you realize that despite its widespread adoption as a political term of art, there really is no such legal entity known as the "electoral college" -- even today, federal law refers to a "college of electors" charged with determining who is president, but mentions an "electoral college" only in a section heading.

Still, the phrase is cemented enough in public policy that when John Diamond (a former Maine state legislator) attended the 1988 Democratic National Convention and was struck by the lack of originality of the political memorabilia, he joked with some friends in higher education about creating t-shirts that promoted the "Electoral College." "We had a good laugh about it," Diamond says.

It wasn't until several years later, when John and Marcia were kicking around ideas for a business that would allow her to work from home, that they revisited the idea for real. When research revealed that no one had ever trademarked the term, they applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and, to their surprise, earned the rights to the phrase as an educational entity. For nearly 15 years now, the company, which has several college administrators as shareholders, has sold sweatshirts, caps and other goods.

The Diamonds can't be thrilled, then, with those political scientists and other commentators who advocate for killing the electoral college, which seems like it would be bad for business, right?

"Yes, it would be bad if they succeed," John Diamond says, "but it's great that it's being discussed." When California explored changing the state's system for choosing its electors, he adds, the company's founders "got some fun e-mails -- as well as a fair number of orders."

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