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Barack Obama Officially Elected President: An Electoral College Primer


Breaking news: The next president will be Barack Obama.

Some 61 million people cast ballots for him during the nationwide popular vote Nov. 6. But the results from that night are merely a guesstimate, a road map for a special group of individuals to follow when they cast the votes that really matter.

In short, the Electoral College chooses the president. The U.S. Congress officially counted these votes on Friday, finalizing Obama’s second term.

Each state gets a number of electoral votes based on the population, and assigns those votes to groups of noteworthy citizens who’ve pledged their support to political parties. Before the popular vote, multiple groups of electors represent each political party in a state. Once the general electorate picks a winner in a state, the winning party’s electors get to cast the formal ballot for president.

The idea of the Electoral College brings a deceptive level of tension into our process of picking a president. Surely a number of hypotheticals could veer the entire game off track. Say, the election comes down to one state. Say, that state can’t figure out who won, and the Electoral College is legally mandated to meet. Or say, the electors in that state defect en masse from their party’s chosen candidate.

But presidential elections rarely create a perfect storm of “what ifs.” Every once in a while, one Electoral College voter will buck his or her party’s wish and cast the wrong vote. The last time an elector became “faithless,” the formal name for such an act, was in 2000 when one of three District of Columbia Democratic electors chose not to vote at all to protest the district’s lack of statehood.

That moment wasn’t nearly the most tense recent Electoral College hitch. A group of members from the House of Representatives protested during the electoral vote certification in January 2001. They were concerned with the outcome of Florida, which had awarded the presidency to George W. Bush despite Al Gore winning the nation’s popular vote. A deeper discussion about the role of electoral votes didn’t happen because of a lack of support from senators. Here’s video of the dramatic vote-counting joint session, presided over by then-Vice President Gore — whom all congressional members addressed, ironically, as “president” and who since then has called for an end to the Electoral College:


This year ran smoothly, with no rogues.

“Generally, the party who nominated the electors, they’re nominating people who have shown loyalty in that party. They’re not walking up to somebody on the street
and saying, ‘Hey do you want to be an elector?'” said Miriam Vincent. She works as one of two lawyers in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration office that processes electoral votes. It’s a job that requires a reverence for historical procedure as well as the patience to await moderate excitement every four years.

The office receives the certificates of votes in hard-copy form through the mail or by messenger — no advanced technologies welcome. Then, it scans the documents and places them online, a process that takes longer than one would imagine — because some states (looking at you, Ohio) send larger documents than a normal letter size, and because the office doesn’t own a large scanner for a twice-a-decade job.

One vote Vincent noticed in 2004, she said, added to the quirks of the job. A Democratic voter in Minnesota — likely by accident — voted for John Edwards as vice president and John Edwards as president. “Everybody including Congress concluded that that was probably a mistake,” she said.

That ability to conclude is key in many ways, Vincent said, to why the Founding Fathers chose not to rely on popular vote: People can have flaws, and the electoral system needs a way to empower reasonable conclusions.

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