When the Electoral College meets Monday for the 58th time in American history to cast the only official vote for president, its 538 members will be acting as the most powerful political institution in the world.
Yet there’s little understanding of who these 306 Republicans and 232 Democrats are, the role they play, or how they were selected. That’s because presidential electors have never done anything more than rubber-stamp the results of the general election.
But a movement of restive Democratic electors is threatening to upend that highly scripted tradition in an attempt — however unlikely — to stop Donald Trump from winning the presidency.
In recent weeks, Democratic electors and their allies have clamored to transform the Electoral College into what they claim Alexander Hamilton intended it to be: a deliberative body that serves as a buffer between the popular vote and the election of a United States president, and safeguards against the election of an unqualified president. They’re hopeful that interpretation of its role results in a rejection of Trump when the body meets next week. It’s a long-shot effort — and one Republican leaders are working to guard against.
Here’s a viewer’s guide to how the Electoral College works, who will cast the votes, what to watch for — and what could go wrong.
Who are the presidential electors?
Behind every electoral vote is an actual human being.
One is even related to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is a New York elector and is slated to travel to Albany to cast his ballot.
Electors aren’t officially picked until Election Day. When voters go to the polls, they’re actually casting ballots for their party’s slate of electors, rather than a presidential candidate. Though Trump and Clinton’s names appear on the ballot, they’re really stand-ins for electors. And the statewide popular-vote winner determines which party sends its slate to the Electoral College.
Trump won the popular vote in 31 states that include 306 electoral votes — and, as a result, 306 members of the Electoral College will be Republicans from those states. Clinton won the popular vote in 19 states and the District of Columbia, adding up to 232 electoral votes — which is why 232 Democrats will join the Electoral College as well.
How do people become electors?
Electors earn their positions through complicated and often random processes that differ from state to state — and that’s the source of the unrest plaguing the Electoral College today.
Democratic and Republican state parties nominate their own slates of electors — some as early as the spring and others as late as October. In many states, elector candidates are picked at congressional district and state conventions, when local activists also pick their delegates to the national convention. Elector contests are usually afterthoughts compared with the more sought-after convention roles.
In Missouri, this process helped elect a Republican anti-abortion activist named Tim Dreste, who was convicted in the 1990s for inciting violence against abortion providers. In Michigan, Republicans at their state convention chose William Rauwerdink, who served jail time for a massive accounting fraud scandal that also required him to pay nearly $300 million in restitution. In Texas, a Democratic elector candidate told POLITICO she supported Jill Stein for president and ran to be an elector to raise awareness for a friend convicted on drug charges.
But the most important factor — and the one contributing to recent unrest — is the fact that many electors were selected in the heat of a divisive and protracted 2016 primary season. As a result, elector slates in many states were packed with supporters of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, many of whom were left embittered by the outcome of divisive primaries.
In other states, electors are picked by party leadership, leading to a more controlled process that rewards donors and insiders. In Ohio and New York, for example, the Trump campaign worked with the state GOP to identify loyal electors.
California’s process may be the oddest of all: The winners of the Democratic primary in each of the state’s congressional races — and its most recent two Senate races — nominate electors. That’s why House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine is an elector, as well as Rep. Xavier Becerra’s daughter Olivia and Dianne Feinstein’s granddaughter Eileen.
How many electoral votes does each state get?
Under Article II of the Constitution, each state is allocated a number of electoral votes equal to its number of seats in Congress — plus two for its senators. That means low-population states like Montana, Wyoming and Alaska get three electoral votes. California gets the most, with 55 electoral votes. Texas gets 38, while Florida and New York each get 29.
Article II actually gives state legislatures the power to choose electors, but that process has been outsourced to political parties.
In all, there are 538 electoral votes — one for every member of Congress and the Senate, as well as three for Washington, D.C. Typically, when presidential candidates win the popular vote in a state on Election Day, they claim all of that state’s electoral votes. That winner-take-all system has become the norm, and it exists in every state except Maine and Nebraska, which award votes to the statewide winner, and also to the winner of each congressional district in the state.
To become president, a candidate must amass 270 electoral votes, a majority.
When does the Electoral College meet?
Federal law prescribes that the members gather in their respective state capitals on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.” This year, it’s Dec. 19.
What do electors actually do when they meet?
It’s different in every state. Some hold grand vote-casting ceremonies; others are more low-key. There’s no set process for the way electors cast their votes other than that they do it on the same day. Each elector gets two votes: one for president and one for vice president — a process laid out by the 12th Amendment.
To cast their votes, federal law prescribes that each elector sign six certificates. One gets mailed to the president of the Senate — Joe Biden in this case. Two others go to their state’s secretary of state. Two more go to the National Archives. The last goes to a local judge.
Some states have allowed electors to cast a secret-ballot vote, others have called for public processes for declaring votes. There are no rules that govern whether electors must announce their intended vote before they write it down.
What are “faithless” electors?
Any electors who refuse to support their party’s presidential candidate are referred to as “faithless.” And they’re a rare breed. There have been only 157 in history, and most of them cast ballots in the 19th century.
The last time there was more than one faithless vote against a presidential candidate occurred in 1832, when two Maryland electors abstained. The most ever in a presidential vote came in 1808, when six Democratic-Republican electors rejected James Madison. (Faithless votes against vice presidential candidates have been slightly more common.)
The last time an elector cast a faithless vote? That was 2004, when a Democratic Minnesota elector cast a vote for John Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards.
This time, there are 10 electors — nine Democrats and one Republican — threatening to abandon their parties’ candidates as part of an effort they’re hoping persuades 37 Republicans to join them and block Trump’s election. The plan is as radical as it is unlikely. But even if they gain no additional support, they could eclipse the 1808 election — and potentially disenfranchise millions of voters in the process.
Can faithless electors be stopped?
This is the milliondollar-question. In at least 21 states the answer is no. But 29 states have laws on the books that require electors to support their party’s candidate. There’s widespread — even bipartisan — belief that those laws may be unenforceable and unconstitutional, but they’ve never been tested or enforced before.
In three states — California, Colorado and Washington — Democratic electors are suing to invalidate binding laws, hoping that a broad federal court ruling might gut the laws in all 29 states and free dozens of Republican electors to vote against Trump. They routinely cite Alexander Hamilton in their arguments. It was Hamilton in the Federalist Papers who outlined the concept of the Electoral College as a deliberative body that could act as a check on popular whims.
A 1952 Supreme Court election left the question open. The ruling in Ray v. Blair determined that political parties may extract pledges from electors — but those oaths can’t necessarily be enforced.
Late Friday, advocates for freeing electors got their first ever legal decision validating their argument. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Colorado, Utah and a slew of Midwestern states, suggested state officials may be constitutionally barred from removing electors once they begin casting their ballots. And they mapped out a legal path that supporters of freeing electors might follow.
What happens after the vote
The votes transmitted to the president of the Senate will be read aloud during a Jan. 6 joint session of Congress, according to provisions in federal law. The certificates will be unsealed and read alphabetically by state and recorded. If there are any disputed votes, members could lodge objections and, ultimately, both branches would resolve them.
How likely is it that 37 GOP electors will vote against Trump?
Not very. Only one Republican elector, Chris Suprun of Texas, has declared that he intends to vote against Trump, and efforts by anti-Trump forces to rustle up additional names have yielded none willing to come forward publicly. Though Harvard University constitutional law professor Larry Lessig has claimed to have upward of 20, there’s been no evidence that he and his allies are making inroads. Republican National Committee officials who conducted a whip count of the 306 GOP electors said they expect Suprun to be the only defector.
“We expect everything to fall in line,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.”
What would happen if 37 Republican electors voted against Trump?
If 37 or more Republican electors ditched Trump — and no other candidate won a majority — the election would be sent to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
In that scenario, each state delegation would get a single vote for president. And their choices are restricted to the top three electoral vote-getters, two of whom are virtually certain to be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There are 32 states with majority Republican delegations and 17 states with Democratic majorities. One state has a tied delegation.
If the House were unable to deliver a majority of votes to any of the three candidates, the final choice would rest with the Republican-controlled Senate.
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