It is a constitutionally mandated ritual every four years, and while it is normally just a logistical process that doesn’t tend to get much attention, this year Americans will watch with interest.
The Electoral College’s usually ceremonial role has come under focus in the aftermath of the 2016 election due to a number of factors — including that Democrat Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by a significant margin, and the finding by the CIA and FBI that Russia used hacking to try to influence the election.
In light of these circumstances, pundits and members of the public are considering what role the 538 electors can and should play in deciding the final outcome of the election.
Public demonstrations opposed to Trump are expected in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., today to encourage electors to vote in line with the national popular vote, protest organizers said. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is spearheading several of the events, said its goal is to talk to electors as they enter the meetings in their respective states to help them feel supported should they decide to vote according to the popular vote.
While it is possible that a few electors who are pledged to Trump could go “faithless” and vote for Clinton or another candidate, most experts expect that Trump will get the 270 electoral votes he needs to win.
Here are some quick insights into the Electoral College vote:
What is happening today? Electors will gather in their respective state capitols to engage in a voting process that is open to the press. The earliest results will likely come in after 10 a.m. ET and the latest around 7 p.m. ET.
Who are the electors? The Electoral College has 538 members, a number drawn from the sum of the total number of U.S. senators and House members plus three additional electors for Washington, D.C. All states except Maine and Nebraska are winner-take-all, meaning that whichever candidate wins the state’s popular vote gets all the electors. Maine and Nebraska do it differently: Two electors vote for whoever won the state popular vote, plus one elector for each congressional district goes to whoever won that district.
In most states, electors are chosen among political party activists. “Generally, the parties select members known for their loyalty and service to the party, such as party leaders, state and local elected officials and party activists,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Faithless electors? ABC News has identified only one elector pledged to Trump — Chris Suprun from Texas — who has said he won’t vote for the Republican candidate. Suprun in an interview on ABC News’ “Nightline” this week referred to the Russian hacking, saying he was “concerned when a foreign government intrudes on our elections. They’re not doing it with our best interest in mind. I don’t think we deserve a classified briefing but I do think we should get as many facts as information we can without compromising sources or methods that the intelligence community can provide.”
What about Russia? As of Sunday, 80 electors, all but one of whom are pledged to Clinton, have signed a letter urging Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to give them classified briefings on Russia’s hacking and any of its other cyberactivities related to U.S. elections. Christine Pelosi, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi‘s daughter, who spearheaded the action, said electors needed to be fully informed on the issue before they cast their votes.
What about Hamilton? Founding father Alexander Hamilton warned in Federalist Paper No. 68 that there may be “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” The Electoral College, he implied, could serve as a fail-safe to prevent a candidate who may represent the interests of a foreign power from taking office. Some political activists and Hollywood celebrities opposed to Trump have said Hamilton’s words provide a basis for electors to vote against Trump on Monday.
Could “faithless electors” put Clinton in office? Trump has 306 electors pledged to him and needs 270 to win. So at least 37 electors pledged to Trump would have to be “faithless” and vote for Clinton or another candidate instead for the Republican to lose. Thirty states have laws that require electors to vote as pledged. However, no elector in any state has ever been penalized or replaced, and none of these state laws has been fully vetted by the courts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The last time an elector crossed party lines was in 1972, when an elector nominated by the Republican Party cast his ballot for the Libertarian ticket, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Faithless electors’ votes could probably still be counted, according to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. Winger said there have been 157 faithless electors in our history, and Congress has counted every single one of those votes except for a case of three electors who voted for a dead man, Horace Greeley, in 1872. But Ned Foley of the Moritz College of Law said that Congress could still stop potential faithless electors, telling ABC News: “Even if there were 37 faithless electors, ultimately what matters is what Congress does on Jan. 6,” when it counts electors’ votes.
Congress certifies the final election results.
What if no one gets to 270? In the highly unlikely event that neither Clinton nor Trump gets 270 electoral votes, then the House of Representatives would vote and choose the next president.