Per Pergram-Capitol Hill
The Founders feared a direct, “popular” election of the President. So while the Founders erected a system for eligible voters to cast ballots for President, they simultaneously constructed a series of circuit-breakers to potentially curb the will of the masses. This would diffuse political power when selecting a chief executive – and is the quintessence of the electoral college.
Creation of the electoral college is the first circuit-breaker. The Founders distributed “electoral votes” based on the population of each state. They granted the smallest states a minimum of three electoral votes – based on the standard distribution of at least two U.S. Senators and one member in the U.S. House of Representatives. But bigger states would command more sway in the electoral college, because, well, they were bigger. Hence, the reason New York and Virginia were power players in the early years.
In essence, voters were choosing “electors” for their state who would cast ballots on behalf of the candidate who emerged victorious. However, electors are free to vote the way they want and not bound to the candidate who prevails in a state. That produces the periodic phenomenon of “faithless” electors casting ballots in the electoral college. 29 states and Washington, DC have laws latching electors to candidates. But those statues are generally viewed as unenforceable. There have only been 157 instances of faithless electors for President or Vice President in the history of the republic. No faithless electors have swayed the outcome of an election.
The last faithless elector incident came in 2004. An unknown elector from Minnesota cast their ballot for then-Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, instead of now-Secretary of State John Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer.
Here’s a general outline on the process from here through inauguration day:
In the spring and summer of a presidential year, the political parties of each state nominate electors for each candidate. These electors are typically “loyal” to a given party.
Then election day hits. Technically, voters are casting ballots for electors, not the actual presidential candidates. A candidate “wins” a given state and all of that state’s electoral votes (the exceptions being Maine and Nebraska, which allocate electoral votes proportionally).
The first big step in the process is December 13. This is when all state recounts, challenges and disputes must be resolved.
The Electoral College meets on December 19, by state, in each state capital. The electors then present their ballots for president and vice president.
Each state crafts six certificates of of votes, comprised of two, separate lists. One list compiles electoral votes for President. The other for Vice President. The Governor of each state certifies each list and attests to their accuracy via a certificate.
One certificate is then sent to the President of the Senate. Two go to each state’s Secretary of State.
December 28 is the deadline for the President of the Senate to receive the electoral ballots.
Per the Constitution, the Congress convenes at noon on January 3. Once the new Congress meets, the Archivist of the United States transmits to both the House and Senate the electoral certificates provided by the governors.
January 6 is then the official tabulation of the electoral college. Congress meets in a Joint Session (usually in the House chamber) with the Speaker of the House and the CURRENT Vice President (as President of the Senate) presiding). A simple majority (270 out of 538) are required to win.
Congress tabulates the states electoral slates in alphabetical order. Four vote counters, known as tellers, announce the results. The tellers are typically two House and two Senate members.
Debate can be called for if there is a dispute over a state’s electors. And that’s why the Founders dictated that the House and Senate would serve as the ultimate arbiter of each state’s electoral slate. This is the second circuit-breaker.
If there’s a disagreement, a member of the House and Senate must jointly contest an individual state’s electoral ballots. If that happens, the House and Senate dissolve into their separate bodies, debate the issue for two hours and then vote to accept or reject that state’s electoral vote. The House and Senate later reconvene to finally settle the issue in the Joint Meeting with the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate (the Vice President) presiding.
In early 2001, various members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) aimed to challenge Florida’s electoral slate from the previous fall’s disputed presidential election. Then-Vice President Gore repeatedly asked each CBC member if they had a Senate sponsor to jointly contest the Florida electoral slate. None did.
“I don’t care that it is not signed by a senator,” famously proclaimed Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) when pressed by Gore if she had a Senate advocate.
The irony of course is that the person who stood to benefit from a successful challenge of Florida’s electoral ballot was none other than Gore – the 2000 Democratic Presidential nominee.
In other words, this was getting awkward.
But not for long.
“The chair would advise that the rules do care,” Gore chastened Waters as he rejected her petition.
The move triggered applause from Congressional Republicans in the House chamber.
Officials reported voting irregularities in Ohio in 2004. The late-Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH) raised the issue about Ohio’s electoral slate during the January, 2005 Joint Meeting of Congress certifying the electoral college. Only this time around, Tubbs Jones found a Senate patron in Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The House and Senate then met separately to debate and vote on the Tubbs Jones/Boxer objection. The House and Senate eventually found the Ohio electoral votes to be in order. President George W. Bush secured a second term in the White House.
There is a final circuit-breaker. Let’s say the House and Senate cannot settle a dispute over the electoral vote and no candidate hits 270? That’s when the House decides the President in what is called a “contingent” election. This has only happened twice in U.S. history. The House votes by state delegation (one vote per state, so California is no more influential than say, North Dakota). A contingent election in 1801 elected Thomas Jefferson. The contingent election of 1825 tapped John Quincy Adams.