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Explainer: What Is the US Electoral College and How Does It Work?

The US has a highly arcane, indirect system of voting where voters do not elect the president. They choose presidential electors who then vote for the president and vice president.

New Delhi: On Tuesday, the world’s oldest democracy will be choosing its candidate to occupy its highest office for the next four years through a highly arcane system of indirect voting.

Here is The Wire’s comprehensive primer to understand the intricacies of unique US practice of Electoral College and the way it could unfold in 2020.

What is the Electoral College?

‘Electoral College’ is the term given to the body of individuals who are selected or elected to be “electors”.

With no constitutional right to vote for the president or his running mate, US voters are basically voting for presidential electors on the general ballot. These electors then vote for the president and vice president of the US.

According to Lonna Rae Atkeson, professor at University of New Mexico with research domain of US election analysis, all ballot papers now omit the phrase “presidential electors” for all candidates that used to be on ballots. “Thus, many voters are unaware that they are not actually voting directly for a presidential candidate because it’s not clear on the ballot there if they’re voting for electors,” she said at an online virtual briefing organised by US state department’s foreign press centre.

Trump Joe Biden

US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, US, September 29, 2020. Reuters/Brian Snyder

In each state, Democrats, Republicans and other minor political parties select their own “slate” of electors, which are put on the ballot.

Under the ‘winner take all’ practice, the party winning the popular vote – even by a narrow margin – gets the entire slate of electors. However, two states – Maine and Nebraska – have a district system of allocating electors. That means, two electors are allotted based on the winner of the state-wide popular vote, while the rest are based on the popular vote in the congressional district.

To win, a presidential candidate has to just attain a simple majority of 270 electoral votes.

While the polling is done on November 3, three other dates are important for the Electoral College process.

On December 8 (known as ‘safe harbour day’), the secretary of state or equivalent for that state will choose which winning slate of electors will be called to the state house. A week later, on December 14, the electors will cast their own ballots for the president and vice president. This automatically dissolves the Electoral College.

The votes of the electoral college will be counted in the US Congress in a joint session on January 6.

How are states allocated Electoral votes?

In total, there are 538 electors. All the states have electors equivalent to their seats in the House of Representatives and Senate.

The states have congressional districts based on their population, but all of them are allocated two senatorial seats, each. California has the highest number of 55 votes in the electoral college, as they send 53 members to the house of representatives, besides two to the Senate.

Why does the US adopt this complicated system of election to their highest office?

For the US’s Founding Fathers, their overlying concern was that one group or individual should not have overwhelming political power. “…authors of our constitution were very concerned about the American public might be fooled by a dangerous demagogue who flatters the people, who’s not a burning responsible leader that they felt that there had to be a check, in case the people decided very poorly and they wanted to give the electors discretion to vote as they please,” said Mark J. Rozell, Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

The original system was for legislatures to choose electors, who were supposed to be distinguished citizens and were free to give their vote for their presidential candidate. “The intentions of the (constitution) framers were two. One is the desire to minimise corruption and second, the desire to make the presidency and the Electoral College institutionally separate from the other branches of government so that the president would not be beholden to any other branch, the legislature or the judiciary,” said Atkeson.

Eventually, through the 18th and 19th centuries, the emergence of political parties and the changing political landscape led to the current system, where electors are basically “pledged” to vote for the party that nominates them.

With the backdrop of having established democracy after overthrowing a British autocratic rule, the intent of the US political system has been to avoid the ‘tyranny’ of the majority. “And basically, we have a system that’s entire purpose is to thwart the will of the majority, in essence, to prevent the passions of the people and to ensure stability and security in the system. And that’s why it has been divided up the way it has,” she said.

People cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential elections as early voting begins in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US, September 24, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Emily Elconin/File Photo

How are Electors elected?

As per the US constitution, they cannot be Senators or Representatives or anyone holding an “office of profit”. A 2017 report of the US congressional service on the Electoral College stated that in practice, electors tended to be a “mixture of well-known figures such as governors and other state and local elected officials, party activists, local and state celebrities, and ‘ordinary’ citizens”.

Atkeson noted that the most common procedure for nominating electors is through state conventions of political parties. This is enshrined in the laws of 32 states and the District of Columbia. At least five of the states direct that electors can be nominated by the central committee of the party’s state chapter. The rest of the states have varied approaches. “The most unusual is Pennsylvania, which authorizes each party’s presidential nominee to select electors on its behalf,” she explained.

What happened to the Electoral College in 2016?

In 2016, Hillary Clinton got 48.8% of the popular vote, ahead of Donald Trump by 2,868,691 votes. The Republican presidential candidate had got 46.09% of all votes. However, Trump bagged 56.5% – or 304 – of the electoral votes. Clinton won 227 electoral votes.

Therefore, it was only the fifth time in US history that the electoral college verdict did not align with the popular vote. Out of the 58 presidential elections, electoral colleges have voted in line with the popular vote 91.4% of the time (53 elections). The first three times were in the 19th century. With the 2016 elections, the last two times have occurred within two decades after George W. Bush also won the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote.

“Hillary Clinton won very large popular majorities in some big population states like California, you only have to win a state by one vote to win 100% of its electors, the margin does not matter. Donald Trump won many more states by smaller margins, hence he got an Electoral College majority,” explained Rozell.

The popular vote margins of the 2016 US presidential election. Photo: Federal Election Commission

2016 also witnessed the largest number of “faithless” electors, that is, members of the electoral college who have voted against the popular vote. In total, seven electors cast their votes against candidate that they were pledged to vote for. This was the largest number since 23 Virginians voted against the instructions on the vice presidential candidate in 1836.

Out of the seven ‘faithless’ electors, five were Democrats – three voted for Colin Powell and one each for Bernie Sanders and Faith Spotted Eagle. In Texas, two Republican electors cast votes for John Kasich and Ron Paul.

According to Atkenson, no ‘faithless’ elector has ever been prosecuted. However, in 2019, the Washington Supreme Court upheld fines imposed on three Democratic electors who voted for Colin Powell. Further, on July 6 this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that that states, which have enshrined it in law, are entitled to remove or replace electors who have changed their pledged votes.

Under its district system, Maine produced a split result for its electoral votes. As Clinton won the state-wide popular vote and in the First congressional district, she was allocated three electors. However, Trump won the Second Congressional District, so he got one.’

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shake hands at the end of their first presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, September 2016. Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

What to look out for in the electoral college class of 2020?

George Washington University’s Rozell noted that some people were so horrified at the 2016 results, that they were calling electors and urging them to go against the popular votes of their state. This initiative was supposed to be based on the concept favoured by one of the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, who favoured independent electors. “It never had any chance to succeed. So that’s not something to look out for in this election cycle,” he added.

Leading up to the elections on Tuesday, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been consistently ahead in national polls. Further, he has shown small leads in many of the states which have a tight race. Many polls have given only single-point chance to Trump of winning the popular poll, therefore just as in 2016, his path to the White House is through the electoral college.

NPR’s final electoral map gives 279 votes to Biden, with 125 to Trump. It categorised seven toss-up states, whose results are too close to predict. These include Texas, Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

Even if Trump wins all these ‘toss-up states’, he will still be 11 short of the majority of 270. That’s why, NPR analysed, that he would have to wrest at least one Blue state, which ideally should be just leaning towards Biden. The two candidates have zeroed in on Pennsylvania as the keystone to this election – and have concentrated their resources in the past few days on this state. According to Politico, Biden was ahead of Trump by 4-5 percentage points, but this was within the margin of error for most surveys. With the rate of early voting in Pennsylvania being much less than in other nearby Rust Belt states, the two parties had still a lot of voters left to appeal.

Campaign signs for US President Donald Trump and Democratic US presidential nominee Joe Biden are seen near an event at Erie International Airport in Erie, Pennsylvania, US October 20, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight also termed Pennsylvania as the tipping point state. “Without Pennsylvania, Biden does have some paths to victory, but there’s no one alternative state he can feel especially secure about,” he wrote.

The chances of a 269-269 tie are just 0.5%, according to this well-known pollster. However, in case of a draw, the newly elected House of Representatives will decide. Each state will have to vote as a unit. If a state has an equal number of Democrat and Republican representatives, their votes will not be counted.

In the outgoing House of Representatives, Republicans control 26 state delegations, while Democrats have 22. With a new House elected on November 3, this equation may well change.