Understanding the Electoral College
And answering the question: Can Hillary Still Win the Presidency?
The 2016 Presidential election has pulled me out of blogger hibernation. Spend a day on Twitter and you’ll quickly discover that there is a great deal of confusion about how we elect our president in this country.
And everyone is asking — days after the general election — “Can Hillary still win?”
Let’s take a look:
Nov. 8th – Polls opened nationwide. People cast their ballots.
Nov. 9th – In the first few hours of the day, it is announced that Donald Trump “is the next President”. The world thinks it knows who has been elected President and Vice President.
Dec. 13th – Deadline for each State to make final decisions regarding the appointment of their electors.
Dec. 19th – In each State, the electors meet to vote for President and Vice President. (Note that this is 41 days after it was announced that Trump won. And it will be weeks before the votes are counted.)
Dec. 28th – Electoral votes are due in the office of the President of the Senate and the Archivist no later than 9 days after the electors meet to vote (although there is no penalty if a State fails to comply).
On or before Jan. 3, 2017 – The Archivist and/or representatives from the Office of the Federal Register meet with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.
Jan. 6, 2017 – Congress meets to count the electoral votes. President of the Senate (Joe Biden) announces the results and declares the winners.
Jan. 20, 2017 – The President-elect takes the oath of office at noon. S/he is now our new President and Commander-in-Chief.
Read more about the key dates, here.
You Went to the Polls but You Didn’t Vote for President!
When you vote, you are NOT voting for the president of your choice. Instead, you are actually voting for the electors who will represent your state when they vote for president. In the 2016 election, the voting doesn’t take place until December 19th. From that perspective, it was premature for Trump to meet with President Obama today.
Technically, legally, actually — Donald Trump is not the President-elect right now.
What is an “Elector”?
An “elector” is one of 538 human beings who make up the Electoral College. The number of electors varies per state.
In each state, Presidential candidates have their own electors. Those electors are usually chosen by the political party to which the candidate belongs.
Electors are pledged and expected to vote for the candidates they represent. This presumption is so strong that, without fail, we “announce the winner” of the Presidential election a full 41 days before they vote!
BUT the electors are not required to vote according to expectations.
Learn more about electors, here.
Winner Takes All
The state of Georgia, where I now live, has 16 electoral votes. The majority of the people in Georgia voted for Trump, thus all 16 electoral votes would, traditionally, go to Trump. Even when there is the smallest margin between candidates, it is a “winner-takes-all” system in every state but two.
This is how a candidate, like Trump, can win an election even though more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton.
Laws Governing for Whom an Elector Must Vote
Unbelievably, there are no Federal laws to mandate how electors vote, nor are there any Constitutional provisions. On the other hand, there are some states which have laws requiring electors to vote consistent with their pledge.
It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen: An elector decides to vote for someone other than the pledged candidate, or to abstain from voting. When this happens, those electors are known as “faithless” or “unfaithful”.
The Faithless Elector
To date, since the founding of the Electoral College process, there have been 157 faithless electors. In 1836, all of the electors for the state of Virginia chose to be unfaithful to their pledge and it changed the outcome of that election.
Only an elector who has pledged his or her vote to a particular party can become a faithless elector. If an elector has not made a pledge, s/he cannot be considered unfaithful. In states like Georgia which do not require electors to pledge, it isn’t possible to become a faithless elector.
There is evidence that the founders intended for electors to vote with deference for the qualifications of the candidate rather than simply pledging to vote for a designated party. After all, if the electors don’t have to use their minds — if they don’t have to actually give consideration to their vote — there isn’t a need for human electors. The entire process becomes symbolic, and in a modern world, the process could easily be automated.
Penalties for Faithless Electors
Penalties vary by state.
- 21 states do not compel the electors to vote their pledge.
- 29 states have penalties that have never been enforced.
In other words, there isn’t really a functional penalty imposed on an elector for voting for a candidate other than the one to whom s/he has pledged allegiance.
Technically, yes. They can vote for whomever they want.
Most experts say that it is not likely to happen (but the experts haven’t been right very often this election!) because electors are faithful to their party.
On the other hand, being faithful to a party doesn’t necessarily equate with being faithful to a candidate. Particularly with regard to the circumstances surrounding Donald Trump and the question of his fitness for office, it is easy to see how a republican elector would find it very difficult to remain faithful.
You may have seen a link to it on Facebook or Twitter — the petition asking the Electoral College to elect Hillary instead of Trump. Signatures on the petition grew by 10,000 every 5 minutes or so. As of the writing of this article, there are nearly 2 million signatures (including mine).
We, the people, can affect change when enough of us come together for a common purpose. In this case, because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and because Donald Trump is considered by most to be truly unfit for the office of President, the electors who vote their conscience could swing the election.
A lot has been written today about this topic, Here are just 3 (and I can’t vouch for their accuracy; I did notice several factual errors in one of them, but, hey, this stuff can be complicated):
- What Happens if Faithless Electors Swing the Results? (Time.com)
- Faithless Electors Could Stop Donald Trump… (Inverse.com)
- Faithless Electors Could Put Clinton in Office (Good.is)
The bottom line is this: If you don’t like the results of the election, do something about it. Do more than whine. Do more than complain. Sign the petition. Send the petition link to everyone in your contacts or friend’s list, etc. Write to your Governor. Email the Office of the Federal Register. Put pressure on the electorates in whatever clever way you can think of (so long as you maintain moral decency, of course).
It’s a long shot, obviously — and no one is saying it’s not — but wasn’t it a long shot for Donald Trump to even win the Republican nomination?
It’s not over till it’s over. And it’s not over yet. . .
For more on the Electoral College, check out History.com They have a great article on the subject!
~Lynda C. Watts
If you believe our president should be elected by popular vote, click here. You can add your name to support a change in the electoral college.
If you want to keep Trump out of the White House, how bipartisan can you be? Read this article which provides the most realistic explanation for keeping Trump out.