The election of the president of the United States is not a simple and straightforward process. The mechanism known as the Electoral College is ultimately responsible for the election of the president and vice president. The Electors generally cast their votes according to the popular vote in their state, or in some cases Congressional District. This system ultimately leaves the power in the hands of the Electors at the end of the day and not the American people. Due to this reality you are left with the possibility that Electors can choose to vote differently than how they pledged, or even abstain from voting. In theory both could impact the outcome of an election and in reality Electors have chosen to vote in another manner than they were pledged to do so.
How the Electoral College works
The Electoral College is made up of 538 Electors who vote for the president and vice president. These correspond to the 100 members of the Senate, the 435 members of the House of Representatives and an additional three Electors for the District of Columbia. When a candidate wins the popular vote in an election, generally they then take all of the Electoral votes for that state. There are two exceptions to this, being the states of Maine and Nebraska. In these two states the electoral votes are split up according to the popular vote in each Congressional district, with the two remaining electoral votes determined by the popular vote in the entire state.
There are strengths and weaknesses to the Electoral Collage system. One of the more obvious problems that people take issue with is that you can win the popular vote in the country but still lose the election. This has been the case in the 2016 election where Hillary Clinton won the nationwide popular vote. She won 48% of the popular vote to Donald Trump’s 46.3% but Donald Trump won the presidency by taking 306 pledged electoral votes to 232 pledged electoral votes for Clinton. In order to win the election a presidential candidate must achieve 270 electoral votes.
Another issue with the Electoral College system is that not everyone’s vote carries equal weight. Depending on which state you live in and the population relative to the number of Electors that state has, it can carry more influence as a result of the way in which the Electoral College is set up. Since all states get a minimum of three electoral votes, due to their two members of the Senate and having at least one Congressional District, states with smaller populations citizen’s votes have a larger impact than those in a much larger state.
The Electoral College system is not all bad though and some of its weaknesses are also its strengths. By using independent state chosen Electors to determine the presidency it works to insulate the election against nationwide fraud. As well, by including all states in the Electoral College system on an individual level it helps to balance geographic representation with representation by population. Using Electors instead of just straight national popular vote numbers also provides a human element to the process who can react in more dynamic situations that require it, such as the death of a candidate or president elect.
Who casts the Electoral College votes?
This year the Electoral College will meet in their respective states on December 19th to cast their votes for both the president and the vice president. Who exactly are these Electors? Well one thing they are not is senators or representatives from either party, as that is prohibited. Other than this and few other exceptions the constitution is fairly open to who can be appointed as an Elector. There are various procedures and laws that differ depending on the state.
In general terms there are two parts to selecting the Electors of a state. The first part of the process is the Electors being chosen by each party for that individual state. This can vary depending on the rules of the state and the party, but for example could be done at the party’s state convention or the Electors are named by the campaign committee. Almost always those selected have a longstanding and dedicated history to the party to minimize the chance of a faithless elector.
The second part of the process occurs on Election Day when Americans get out and vote for the candidate they want to be president. In reality they are selecting the group of state Electors which they want to pledge their votes to the proper candidate. Depending on which state you are in and what the procedures are you may actually see the names of the Electors below the candidate’s name on the ballot. The slate of Electors who represent the winning candidate for that state are then appointed to represent the state in the Electoral College.
There is a history of faithless electors
This brings us to the issue of faithless electors. What happens when the appointed Electors do not vote the way in which their state voted? Electors voting according to the popular vote within their state is not mandated by either federal law nor any constitutional provision. However, there are 29 states where electors are required to honor the state results. This is done in one of two ways, either through state laws or through being bound by their pledges by a political party.
If one does not vote the way they pledge they then become a faithless elector which can carry with it a monetary fine, or their vote me be disqualified and a new substitute Elector put into place by the party. The largest deterrent to prevent faithless electors lies in the reality that it would be political suicide, as you are going against the wishes of your party. Again, those selected to be Electors have deep ties to the party and only under extreme circumstances would this lead to them going against their party's wishes.
This is not to say that it has never happened, although in the modern era occurrences have been few and far between. In the history of the nation there has been a total of 157 faithless electors who have not voted as they were pledged to do. This means that over U.S. history over 99% of the time electors vote for the candidate which they have pledged for.
The most recent cases of faithless electors include an unknown Minnesota Elector in 2004 who was pledged to Democrat John Kerry but ended up voting for his running mate John Edwards as president. This likely happened by accident but demonstrates the power of an Elector. Another example is from 2000 when Democratic Elector Barbara Lett-Simmons chose to abstain from voting in protest of Washington D.C.’s lack of congressional representation. Neither case affected the outcome of the election, nor has any faithless elector in American history thus far. The reality remains though that there is always a technical possibility that it could happen.
What will the 2016 election have in store?
This year Trump has a sizable Electoral College lead of 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232 electoral votes if all Electors vote as pledged. Trump winning is by far the likely outcome, as the difference to be made up in electrical votes would require such a large number of Republican Electors to abstain or change their vote. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t those out there trying to make this a reality. There has been a change.org petition with 4.5 million signatures calling for Republican Electors to vote for Hillary Clinton instead of Trump. This is extremely unlikely to occur, but again it would technically be legal and however improbable still remains possible.
There has been talk of a group of Democratic Colorado and Washington Electors pledged to Hillary seeking to find a less polarizing Republican candidate to vote for. This would require a total of 270 Electors from a combination of both Democrats and Republicans changing their Electoral votes to a more mainstream Republican candidate. Even if every Democratic Elector changed their vote it would still not meet the required 270 electoral votes required to win as a result of Clinton only gathering 232 electoral votes. This means that there would need to be at least 38 Republican Electors who change their vote assuming every single Democrat was willing to change theirs to a moderate Republican. This would also mean that in certain states Electors would have to go against binding Electoral voter laws, although the penalties in fines are often only in the hundreds of dollars and punishment takes place after the vote has taken place.
These are all interesting yet unlikely scenarios. Beyond a reasonable doubt we will see a Donald Trump Electoral College win come December 19th when they officially cast their ballots. Due to the Electoral College system used in America the realm of possibility is quite wide still and leaves far fetched plans within technical feasibility. Even when the 2016 election appears to more or less be over, it doesn’t officially end until the Electoral College has met and cast its votes on December 19th.