The Electoral College ‘electors’ meet today, to formally vote for the President of the United States.
But what is this system, and why are they voting over a month after the election was held?
The College is the official process by which the US votes for its new President.
Although ordinary citizens voted on November 8, they did not actually vote for their preference for the next President.
In fact, they voted to indicate who they want their ‘elector’ cast their ballot for.
These people, selected by the political parties, then vote for their candidate, which is generally the person who won the popular vote in their state. This isn’t necessarily the case, but more of that below.
You may have noticed the numbers 538 and 270 being mentioned a lot on election night.
And that’s because there are 538 electors, spread across the 50 states, and a candidate must win 270 of these potential votes to secure their place in the White House.
Why does this system exist?
The Electoral College system is enshrined in the US Constitution. It was invented by the Founding Fathers as a way of ensuring the President was elected by all of the States of the Union.
It was also a compromise between electing the President by a vote in Congress (by Senators and Congressmen) and by a simple popular vote by the citizens.
Because it is enshrined in the Constitution, it would be extremely difficult to change this process.
Who are the electors?
Each state has its own statutes and laws regarding who can be an elector, though the most important rule nationwide is that they cannot already hold office, such as Senator on a federal or state level.
The Constitution also states that “state officials who have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States” may not be electors. This rule is a hangover from the Civil War, but is still in place.
The political parties each select the requisite number of electors in each state. But only electors representing the party who wins the state’s Presidential election gets to vote in the Electoral College. The only exceptions to this rule are the states of Maine and Nebraska , who split their College votes depending on how many votes each candidate wins in the popular vote.
All 48 other states operate a ‘winner takes all’ system.
Can electors ignore the popular vote?
The short answer is: Yes. (But it’s not actually that simple)
There is no Constitutional requirement or Federal law which requires electors to vote in line with the popular vote.
However, many states, such as California and Florida either impose fines or simply disqualify electors who fail to vote in line with the result of the popular vote in their state.
Many states also require electors to pledge to vote in line with the election result when they sign up for the role.
But no elector has ever been prosecuted for voting against the will of the people. According to the US National Archives , in the history of the US “more than 99 percent of Electors have voted as pledged”.