In exactly one week on December 19th, The Electors of the Electoral College will cast their vote for President. A Change.org petition currently has 4.8 million supporters (the largest in Change.org history) urging electors to vote against their state’s decision and vote for Hillary Clinton to be the 45th President of the United States. With recent developments indicating that Russian hackers played a part in President-elect Trump’s win, now more than ever the nation is buzzing about the electors and which way they will vote on the 19th.
Hillary Clinton is currently leading Donald Trump in the popular vote by over 2 million votes, only the 5th time in the history of the United States where the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the overall election. Clinton supporters and Democrats point to her landslide lead in the popular vote as indication that the electoral college needs revisiting. And after recounts, protests, and tweet-storms from journalists and even the President-elect himself, it seems that all eyes will be on the electors next Monday when they cast their votes for President and Vice-President.
But who actually ARE the Electors of the Electoral College? How does their vote really work? And what would it ACTUALLY mean to vote against Trump on December 19th?
In order to understand the voting that electors do, and what being a “faithless elector” actually means, let’s first talk a little bit about the history of the electoral college, who the 538 electors are and how they obtain their positions, and a brief history of voting as an elector in the United States.
During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the original proposal for the presidential election came from the Virginia Plan, which initially called for Congress to elect the President. However a committee pointed out flaws to this plan and eventually on September 6th, 1787, the convention resulted in the Electoral College being implemented. Smaller states (Delaware, for example) favored the Electoral College due to the fear of a popular vote meaning that large states would completely control the election.
Article Two, Section One, Clause Two of the Constitution states:
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”
Therefore, each state is given a specific amount of electors to represent the number of votes their state gets in the Electoral College. As per the 23rd Amendment, Washington D.C. is given 3 electors, as that’s the amount of votes it would be allocated if it were a state. States with higher population counts (California, New York, Pennsylvania) receive more electoral votes and have more electors to represent them, states with lower population counts (Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming) receive less.
But why do we have a separate elector vote in the first place?
Well, because frankly, our founding fathers were actually pretty gun-shy about democracy.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers:
“The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
James Madison (who later became the fourth President) was also not democracy’s biggest fan as he believed organized groups (what he called “factions”) with a common interest could become more than 50% of the population and would elect a President to serve their ideals – not the nation as a whole. Thus his support of a Republic system, which is the governmental system that the US operates on to this day.
Essentially, the electoral college and the subsequent elector vote are viewed as a built in safety net to protect the United States from the aforementioned factions and “unqualified” men from making the sole election decisions.
So who exactly are the electors anyway?
Months before the election even takes place, each party slates potential electors who will vote in December after their respective presidential candidate has won the election. How this happens varies from state to state but generally, this either happens at the respective party convention in each state or they are chosen by a vote cast by the party’s central committee.
According to this document from the state of Washington,
“Electors are often chosen based on their service and dedication to their political party. They may be state-elected officials, party leaders or people who have a personal or political affiliation with a presidential candidate.”
Many states have what is known as a “winner take all” system. Meaning whichever major party candidate wins the election gets ALL of their allotted elector votes.
Which is where faithless electors come into play.
What does it mean to be a “faithless” elector and what sort of effect would it have on both them and the state of the election?
A faithless elector is a term used to define an elector who chooses to vote AGAINST their party, or not cast a vote at all (known as faithlessly abstaining). For example, Washington State was a blue state in the 2016 election and therefore the electors voting for Washington are the electors slated by the Democratic party. To be considered a faithless elector, one of these electors would not vote for Hillary Clinton, but would vote for another party’s candidate — either Republican, Third Party, or “any native-born citizen age 35 or older.” If electors feel that they have a more appropriate candidate in mind, they can write them in. Depending on the electors state, such an act is still deemed as being a faithless elector.
As it stands today, 29 states have laws that penalize faithless electors with punishments varying from replacement or removal from the elector vote, to misdemeanors or fines. However, never in the history of the United States has a faithless elector been penalized for voting against their party and there is no federal law that prohibits faithless electors.
In the entire history of the electoral college, there have only been 157 documented cases of faithless electors, 71 of which were because the respective candidate died before this later vote took place.
The only election to date to ever be changed by faithless electors was in 1836, when Democratic Vice President nominee Richard Johnson failed to receive 270 votes, and was therefore not elected.
So let’s say hypothetically speaking that next week, the electors do NOT vote in favor for President-elect Trump, then what happens?
Currently there are electors suing their state for the ABILITY to be a faithless elector, electors demanding that the vote be postponed until the CIA and FBI complete further investigations into the Russian hacking allegations, and tons of attention coming their way from things like the protests and the previously mentioned petition.
So if the election WAS swayed by faithless electors (aka: no candidate receives the necessary 270 electoral votes)….then what?
Well then the vote for the President would go to the House of Representatives, and the vote for the Vice-President would go to the Senate. Both of which, currently, are controlled by the Republican party. It’s unclear whether the House would lean in favor of Trump, who has been their party’s nominee and front runner for most of the general election season, or look for another Republican candidate. If no candidate can be voted officially in by inauguration day, the VP is then sworn into office.
But again, 99% of electors who have voted since the constitution was formed in 1787 have voted in line with their party.
Unless in the first time in the history of our nation there is a hold placed on the vote, we will likely have an answer next week as to who our official 45th President will be.