COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s an institution as old as the nation itself, but the Electoral College remains an enigma to many Americans. The Founding Fathers, apprehensive about the unchecked power of the popular vote, added the extra step to the process of choosing a president.
A look at the ins and outs of the Electoral College and how its role could be even more scrutinized this year:
Who are the electors?
Their names often aren’t published on ballots, but voters are technically picking a slate of party electors — not the individual candidate — when they cast their ballots.
Each state has as many members of the Electoral College as its number of U.S. House and Senate members combined. The District of Columbia has three electors, making the national total 538.
Typically each party selects as its electors party leaders, elected officials and activists. Each state has different timelines for elector selection, but it generally happens at least a few months before a general election, often as part of state party conventions.
How does it work?
As election results come in, networks and race callers compile electoral vote totals for candidates. Once someone has won a majority of 270 electoral votes, we theoretically have a president.
But none of it is actually official yet. State officials will certify vote totals in the days after an election, but electors don’t technically cast their votes until about six weeks later, when they meet in their respective capital cities. Electors vote on two ballots, one for president and one for vice president.
About a month later, before a joint session of Congress, the current vice president opens the votes from each state and officially declares the next president.
If no candidate gets a majority, there’s a “contingent election,” under which the U.S. House determines the winner, with each state delegation getting one vote. The U.S. Senate selects the vice president, with each senator getting a single vote.
According to House archives, only two presidential elections, in 1800 and 1824, have been decided this way.
Winner-take-all vs. district systems
The District of Columbia and 48 states operate on a “winner-take-all” system, meaning that all of that state’s electoral votes are awarded to the slate that won the popular vote.
The electors formally gather at a later date to officially cast their votes for president.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only Maine and Nebraska use a district system. The presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district receives one electoral vote, and the remaining two votes are awarded to the candidate with the most votes statewide.
Do they have to stick with the nominee?
Mostly, although not always.
Twenty-one states don’t require their electors to go along with the popular vote. That includes Georgia, traditionally Republican, where GOP elector Baoky Vu, citing Trump’s “antics and asinine behavior,” said last week that he won’t vote for Trump in the general election and might not in good conscience be able to cast his electoral vote for him, opting instead to write someone else in. Hours later, he resigned as an elector.
According to FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates electoral reform, there have been just over 150 of these so-called faithless electors. Many of those votes were changed because the original candidate died before electors cast their votes. More than 80 were changed either by accident or the elector’s personal interest. A handful abstained from voting altogether.
The 29 states that require faithfulness from their electors can impose a variety of punishments, including fines. According to NCSL, Oklahoma and Washington impose civil penalties of $1,000. In South Carolina, a faithless elector is subject to criminal penalties.
In 2000, Barbara Lett-Simmons, an elector for the District of Columbia, cast a blank ballot for president and vice president in protest of the District’s unfair voting rights. According to NCSL, the last time an elector crossed over to back another party’s nominee was 1972, when Virginia Republican elector Roger L. MacBride cast his vote for Libertarian candidate John Hospers.
Will it always be this way?
Bills have been introduced across the country to streamline Electoral College processes, with most proposing a switch to the district system, but none has been successful. A National Popular Vote Compact has been proposed, meaning that states could eventually bypass the Electoral College, promising to give all their electoral votes to the party that wins the national — rather than state — popular vote.
States with a combined total of at least 270 electoral votes must join the compact before it takes effect. So far, the compact has 136 pledged votes, so there’s a ways to go before any systemic change happens.