Though the 2016 presidential election took place more than three weeks ago, Donald Trump will not officially be elected president until the members of the Electoral College — 538 people whose names are completely unfamiliar to almost everyone who voted on November 8 — cast their ballots on December 19. But how are these Electoral College members, known as “electors,” selected, and what qualifies them to have the final say as to whether Trump of Hillary Clinton becomes the 45th president of the United States?
The Electoral College has normally — especially in the 20th and 21st centuries — served as a formality, providing a Constitutional rubber stamp to the results of the election. Until 2016, the only exception since 1876 came in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush scored one electoral vote more than the 270 needed for a majority, becoming president even though Democrat Al Gore won the “popular vote” by a narrow margin of just 540,520 votes.
But the election of 2016 is historic, and the Electoral College will play a historic role, because Republican Donald Trump appears to have won 306 electoral votes — even though Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes and a 1.9 percentage point margin, which is greater than the popular vote victory margins of 10 elected presidents in the 58 elections held in American history.
Trump, on the other hand, will apparently win the Electoral College with a smaller percentage of the vote than several recent losers of presidential elections, trailing Mitt Romney’s percentage in 2012 and John Kerry’s share in 2004, among others.
And votes are still being counted in California, New York, and other states.
The names of the electors who make up the Electoral College do not appear on any ballot, but when voters fill out their ballots and make their choice of their preferred presidential candidate, they are actually voting not for the candidate but for a slate of electors who pledge to vote for that candidate.
The electors are nominated by the political parties active in each state, usually throughout the spring and summer of a presidential election year. Republicans nominate their own slate of electors, while Democrats nominate their own group. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the electors “are generally loyal or consistent party members. The parties want to be sure they can rely on their electors to cast their votes for the party’s nominee for president.”
Under Article II of United States Constitution, however, the electors must not be U.S. senators or congressional representatives — or for that matter, any employees of the federal government at all.
Except for Maine and Nebraska, which split their electoral slates by congressional district, each state uses a winner-take-all system for awarding electors. If the Republican candidate wins the popular vote in a particular state, that state’s slate of Republic electors will participate in the Electoral College. If the Democratic candidate wins, the Democratic electors will cast Electoral College ballots.
For example, in 2016, Clinton won the state of New Hampshire and its four electoral votes. That means that 81-year-old former state representative Bev Hollingworth, 64-year-old former state House Speaker Terie Norelli, 63-year-old Carol Shea-Porter, who was just elected to congress, but is not yet a sitting member, and 80-year-old Dudley Dudley — a longtime political activist — will vote in the Electoral College on December 19 — all of them presumably voting for Clinton.
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Any disputes over which electors may serve must be resolved by December 13, six days before the vote, when each group of state electors meets separately in their home states to cast their ballots. The Electoral College always meets on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
Even when the Electoral College votes, the election is still not final. Each state must send its ballots to the president of the senate — in this case, current Vice-President Joe Biden — who then reads out the ballots for the official, final count on January 6, at a joint session of both houses of Congress.
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