The Electoral College Votes for President Today. Here's How It Works

The electoral math is clear, and it's unlikely the electors will change anything much when they vote.
The electoral math is clear, and it's unlikely the electors will change anything much when they vote.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Electoral College is meeting on Monday for members to formally cast their ballots for president and vice president. While some are hoping the 538 electors gathered in their respective state capitals will take a page from Texas elector Chris Suprun — who is refusing to vote for President-elect Donald Trump — and vote for someone else to be president, the odds of this happening are not high.

For one thing, Trump has 308 pledged electoral votes compared to Hillary Clinton's 232 (it takes 270 to win). Besides, the reality is that historically electors don't actually choose who gets to become the next commander-in-chief.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When the Founding Fathers were figuring out the process for electing a president during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, some wanted Congress to pick the president, while others wanted state governors or state legislatures to choose the next executive. When nobody could agree on what to do, they kicked the issue to a small committee, the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters. (Luckily, whoever named that committee doesn't seem to have been allowed to name much else.)

The committee cooked up the idea of the Electoral College, a plan that would give each state two electors because each state gets two senators and then an elector for each member of the House of Representatives, which can range from just one to more than 50. The people would elect these electors — not the actual presidential candidates — and then the Electoral College would meet, vote and send their votes to Congress. There, the votes would be tallied and the vice president would announce the winners, and that would be that.

Everybody dug this system because it would balance things out between state and federal interests, give states with smaller populations some voting clout and prevent Congress from having too much control over the president. (It also, troublingly, balanced the North against the slave-holding South, since a direct election would have left the South outnumbered, as Time recently noted.)

Plus, people going into election booths would get to feel like they had a say in who would become president without actually getting to make that final call. (This may be a shocker, but the Founding Fathers didn't entirely trust “the people.”)

However, simple as the process they came up with sounds, it almost never worked the way the founders intended. Why? Well, because voters made it clear early on they expected electors to, you know, actually reflect the way people in each state had voted.

The first time an elector went against the way he'd been instructed to vote, in 1796 – Samuel Miles, of Pennsylvania, was pledged to vote for Federalist John Adams but opted to back Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson when he cast his ballot – people were outraged, according to FairVote, an organization that supports election reform. Adams still won, but it was noted pointedly in a Pennsylvania newspaper editorial that Miles's changing his vote was not cool.

By the 19th century, since the only platform an elector campaigned on was which presidential candidate he would vote for, the elector's role was reduced to rubber-stamping whoever won in his state.

With this year's contentious presidential election, some have argued that since Clinton won the popular vote, it could be fair to let electors try to reflect that, but FairVote Legal Director Drew Penrose maintains you can't opt to change a system just because you don't like the results. “The rules say whoever wins the Electoral College wins the vote, and those are the rules. Whether or not the rules are good is absolutely something people should discuss, but you can't just look at the outcome and change them. This was the system in place and Trump won as a result.”

Some states have passed laws binding electors or forcing them to resign if they don't vote as promised, but there haven't actually been many faithless electors over the years. Including Miles, there have been only 157 incidents of faithless electors, Penrose says, but they've never changed the outcome of an election. And the only times significant blocks of electors have chosen not to support the candidate they'd pledged to — in 1872 and 1912 — the candidate in question had died. (In both cases the deceased candidate didn't win the election anyway.)

In other words, those hoping the Electoral College will step in and change the outcome of the 2016 presidential election had better not hold their breath.

So on Monday all 538 electors will cast their ballots. From there, each state has to send in certificates of vote to the Office of the Federal Registry, where each certificate is inspected and logged. Congress will actually meet in joint session in the House of Representatives to officially tally the vote on January 6. Two appointed tellers present and record the votes from each state in alphabetical order. Vice President Joe Biden, as president of the Senate, then announces the election results, which are entered into official journals of the House and Senate.

Barring any objections from Congress, that will finally be the end of it, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. Or, if the thought of extending this excruciating election process any further makes you want to vomit, just make your peace with the fact that, despite the whole Electoral College process, the election has essentially been over for more than a month.

That way you can get on to planning how you will celebrate/drink your way through Trump's inauguration.

It'll be here before you know it.


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