Electoral College: The people who ultimately pick the US president


By Sam Cabral
BBC News, Washington

Electors meet to cast their electoral college votes

image copyrightGetty Images

The US presidential election was five weeks ago, but the votes that officially anoint the next president are just about to be cast.

When Americans go to the polls in presidential elections, they are not directly voting for president. They are actually voting for a group of 538 “electors” that make up the Electoral College.

Electors cast their vote on Monday 14 December, after all 50 states and the District of Columbia have certified their election results.

We’ll introduce to some of these electors in a moment – two ordinary Americans and another who everyone knows – but first, let’s remind you how this all works.

Who can be an elector?

The US Constitution only states that electors cannot be members of Congress or others who currently hold federal office. So they can be:

  • Retired politicians – former president Bill Clinton cast an electoral vote for his wife Hillary in 2016.
  • State and local elected officials – New York governor Andrew Cuomo was a Democratic elector in 2016
  • Grassroots activists, lobbyists or other figures from a state – we have two examples below
  • Personal or professional connection to candidate – Donald Trump Jr was an elector for his father last time
media captionThe president of the United States is not chosen directly by voters, but by what’s known as the electoral college

How are electors chosen?

Each political party with a candidate on the presidential ballot nominates or votes on its own slate of electors in the months prior to election day. States have their own rules for choosing electors.

Roughly in line with the size of its population, each state gets as many electors as it has lawmakers in the US Congress (representatives in the House and Senate).

Once we know who won a state’s popular vote, we know which party will appoint the electors for that state.

Electors are like rubber stamps that formalise how their state voted, so they are usually loyal supporters of their party.

What role do electors play?

Electors have already pledged their support for a certain candidate, so they almost always vote as pledged.

This changed in 2016, when a historic number of so-called “faithless electors” – seven in total – voted for candidates other than those they had pledged to support (five turned against Clinton, two against Trump). It was the first election since 1948 to feature more than one faithless elector.

States have since looked to strengthen their rules against faithless electors, pushing laws to remove them and have their votes redacted if they do not vote as pledged, a move backed by the US Supreme Court.

What is happening in 2020?

With the backing of several high-profile supporters, President Trump has called on Republican state legislatures in states he lost to throw out their popular vote results and appoint their own set of electors. Election law experts are sceptical that this is possible and Republican state leaders have pushed back against this suggestion.

  • Trump’s latest legal longshot – could it work?

A successful presidential candidate must get at least 270 out of the 538 votes that make up the electoral college.

If electors vote based on the certified results of their states, they will give Joe Biden 306 votes and Donald Trump 232, thus officially handing the presidency to Mr Biden.

‘I’m an elector in New York’

By far the most famous elector this year is Hillary Clinton.

The former secretary of state and first lady lost the 2016 presidential election to Mr Trump, but she gets the last laugh as an elector this year from her adopted home state of New York.

In announcing that she was an elector, Mrs Clinton said it would be “pretty exciting” to cast her vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice-president, respectively.

Mrs Clinton has previously called for the abolition of the Electoral College, arguing presidents should instead be selected by popular vote. In 2016, she was defeated in the Electoral College despite winning nearly three million more votes than Mr Trump.

‘This is real change’

image copyrightKhary Penebaker

Khary Penebaker is a father of three, a small business president and a proud Democrat. He will be one of 10 electors from the state of Wisconsin, casting his electoral college vote for Mr Biden and Ms Harris.

Mr Penebaker has been one of the state’s elected Democratic National Committee representatives since 2017 and ran for Congress in 2016, so he is a familiar face in the party politics of Wisconsin.

“In 2016, I was an elector for Hillary Clinton, but didn’t get a chance to cast my electoral ballot for America’s first female president,” said Penebaker. “At least now, I can cast my ballot for Joe Biden, who is going to restore some semblance of civility and decency.”

He will be one of two black electors in his state and is thrilled by the prospect of Vice-President Harris: “For people of colour, we don’t want to be seen as the enemy. With our first black female vice-president, we have someone who can see us as equal and as human beings.”

‘This is a very honourable position’

image copyrightNaomi Narvaiz

Naomi Narvaiz is a mother of five, a community activist and a staunch Republican. She will be one of 38 electors from the state of Texas, casting her electoral college vote for President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence.

In addition to being a Republican Party official in Texas, Narvaiz has been actively involved at various levels in her community, from her school district’s health advisory council to her city’s ethics review commission. She was nominated as an elector by her sister-in-law, a former local elected official and was selected at the state party convention earlier this year.

“This is a very honourable position to hold,” said Narvaiz, “and I’m very grateful that the people in my congressional district honoured me with their votes to do that for them.”

Texas is one of 17 states that does not bind its electors to vote for the person who won the state’s popular vote. Two Texans were among the seven faithless electors in the 2016 election, casting their votes for former presidential candidates John Kasich and Ron Paul.

Narvaiz says her support for President Trump is rock solid: “I wanted to make sure our congressional district was well-represented and that we would have a faithful elector to vote for President Donald J Trump, and I knew that person would be me.”

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