We had a brutal presidential election that most Americans believe ended late on the evening of November 6th. But did it really?
A little known gathering of individuals across the country will take place this month, on the Monday following the second Wednesday in December. This group, known as the electors, will cast their votes for the president and vice president of the United States.
Of course, these electors are determined by which candidate won the popular vote in 48 of the 50 states. But as part of the formal election process, the winner of the November general election isn’t formally certified until the electors have cast their ballots and then the Congress officially certifies the ballots.
This is the process of the Electoral College, a system that was originally designed by the writers of the Constitution to protect the fledgling democracy from the passions and whims of the populace.
Acting as a “safety valve,” the framers created the electors to protect the governmental system, and thus the nation, as part of a grand compromise at the Constitutional Convention.
It was originally proposed that the Congress would elect the chief executive, but the belief in a system of separate institutions of government conflicted with this method. On the other hand, giving the power to select the president wholly over to the populace, who the framers believed could be influenced and swayed by propaganda, would be a detriment to the system as well.
The system of electing a separate body of individuals who would then “ratify” and finalize the selection of the president was seen as a compromise between the two extremes, and the Electoral College (a name not found in the Constitution) was born.
Nearly 215 years later, the Electoral College plays two key roles in our presidential elections.
First, the apportionment of “electoral votes.” They’re based on each state’s congressional representation plus the District of Columbia’s 3 electoral votes. These electoral votes affect the strategy of presidential campaigns.
Second, to ratify the November general election results.
When you went in to vote for president and vice president this fall, you probably noticed that only the candidate’s names appeared on the ballot. But before 1920, states had listed the “electors” (typically chosen by the state parties in consultation with the party’s presidential candidate) on the general election ballot.
With the advent of presidential short ballot and the use of machines to cast and count ballots, the listing of electors was dropped from the ballot by many states, with only a handful still listing their electors.
In the vast majority of the states and the District of Columbia, the electors are awarded to the presidential and vice presidential candidates who finish “first past the post,” meaning they got one more vote than the candidates who came in second in the popular vote.
In two states, Nebraska and Maine, electors are awarded in a two-stage process: 2 votes for the total statewide vote, with the remaining electoral votes awarded by individual congressional district popular vote.
Once the state’s popular vote winner is determined, the winner’s electors typically will meet in the state capitol to proceed through a small, but notable, ceremony.
With some small speeches typically made before the ceremony, the electors then sign a ballot casting their votes for president and vice president. The ballots are then sealed in an envelope and sent to the Congress, which constitutes the second stage of the Electoral College process.
Based on the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a joint meeting on January 6th of the newly elected Congress meets in the House chamber, with the president of the U.S. Senate (a.k.a. the sitting Vice President) presiding over the official “counting” of the electoral ballots.
Each state’s ballots are opened and the votes are recorded, with the final announcement by the Vice President of the winner of the presidential and vice presidential offices.
Typically, this announcement has been “melodramatic” as described by one scholar of the process. In 1993, then Vice President George H. W. Bush had the honor of declaring himself elected as president, while vice presidents Richard Nixon (in 1961), Walter Mondale (1981) and Al Gore (2001) had the unfortunate honor of announcing their own defeats and their opponent’s victory.
While many have argued throughout the years that the Electoral College is an antiquated process that needs to be changed (most argue for a national popular vote as the determining factor), the Electoral College goes through its constitutional process every four years and then typically slinks back into the recess of the nation’s mind for a four-year hibernation.