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Everything you need to know about the Electoral College

Candidates' path to victory
Clinton and Trump's path to victory 04:36

Millions of voters will head to the polls next Tuesday to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election (and some already have), but the outcome won’t be official for another two months, in January. That’s because the presidential election is decided by the Electoral College, and not the national popular vote.

It’s a process that was established by the Constitution that says a candidate can only be elected president if he or she wins a majority of the 538 electors. Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, therefore, must secure at least 270 electoral votes to win the White House.

A political party’s slate of electors is chosen on Election Day in each state, and in most, it’s based on which ticket wins the most votes. Electors then meet in mid-December to officially cast one vote for president and one vote for vice president.

Former President Bill Clinton happens to be among the Democratic Party’s slate of electors in New York, which also includes Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general who’s been investigating the activities of Donald Trump’s foundation. In the unlikely outcome that Trump wins New York, his son Donald Trump Jr. and Carl Paladino are on the state’s slate of Republican electors.

How does it work?

Each state’s allotted number of electoral votes is equal to the size of each state’s congressional delegation. Texas, for example, has 38 electors, which means the state has 36 members in the House of Representatives plus its two senators. California has the most electoral votes, 55, and a few states like the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming have as few as three. Washington, D.C. also has three electoral votes.

Most states distribute electoral votes through a winner-take-all system, so if Clinton were to win the battleground state of Arizona, 11 electors selected by the state’s Democratic Party would be elected to the Electoral College. Maine and Nebraska operate under a different system, whereby the winner of each congressional district is awarded one electoral vote each and the winner of the statewide vote is awarded each state’s remaining two electoral votes.

How early voting is impacting the election 05:27

Proponents of reforming the Electoral College, like FairVote’s Executive Director Rob Richie, argue that the current system leads to candidates ignoring many states during the general election.

As of Wednesday, the group found that 92.5 percent of campaign activity has happened in just 11 battleground states. More than half of the activity, it said, has occurred in just four states.

What happens between Election Day and the inauguration?

Next Tuesday, voters will select a presidential candidate, but they’ll technically be casting ballots for a candidate’s party’s slate of electors. Based on the returns that flow in that night, analysts will be able to quickly calculate who won the electoral votes in each state.

On Dec. 19, each state’s winning slate of electors is expected to meet in person in state capitals to cast one ballot for president and one for vice president. Those vote counts are then sent to the government by late December.

On the afternoon of Jan. 6, unless the date is changed, the vice president, Joe Biden, will open the electoral votes before a joint session of the new Congress where they will be counted.

If there is a tie in the Electoral College or if no candidate receives 270 electoral votes, the House would elect the next president based on the three presidential candidates who receive the most electoral votes, with one vote per state delegation, and the Senate would elect the vice president. Only two presidents have been elected by the House: Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and John Quincy Adams in 1825.

Who are the electors?

The Constitution doesn’t provide too many details about who can serve as an elector except that no sitting senator or House member can be appointed as one. Political parties in each state generally choose their slate of electors.

Some of the other Democratic electors this cycle include Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, in Florida; Christine Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, in California; and former Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona.

Notable Republican electors include Pam Bondi, attorney general of Florida; Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, in Maryland; and Sean Spicer, communicators director and chief strategist at the RNC, in Virginia.

Are electors required to vote for their pledged candidate?

There is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote for whom they are pledged. Twenty-six states and D.C., however, bind their electors to vote for their promised candidates. People who vote for someone other than for whom they are pledged are known as “faithless electors” and they’ve never decided a presidential election. “Faithless electors” are rare, with only one in each of the 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1988 elections.

This year, however, there could potentially be more “faithless electors” within the GOP because of the some internal party opposition to Trump, said John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. He warned that dynamic could potentially cause problems.

“If there were a tie at 269, or if Donald Trump got 270 or 271 votes, I think there’s a real risk of a couple of electors voting for someone else in an effort to throw the race into the House,” he said.

Have there ever been changes to the Electoral College?

In 2013, nearly two-thirds of the public, 63 percent, said they wanted to get rid of it, according to a Gallup poll, which found only 29 percent said they were against doing away with the system.

Hundreds of proposals have been introduced in Congress to change the process, none of them successful. The effort to reform the system has gained momentum in the past when a candidate has won the national popular vote, but lost an election. It’s happened only three times since the beginning of the two-party system, with the most recent being in 2000 when Al Gore won about 540,000 votes more than George W. Bush nationally. Bush, however, won the Electoral College 271-266.

A movement to implement a plan that would elect the president based on the national popular vote has been slowly spreading across the U.S. The plan has been introduced in 50 state legislatures and so far, 10 states as well as D.C. have passed such legislation totaling 165 electoral votes. If enough additional states also passed the plan so that they have at least 270 electoral votes, the plan could actually take effect.

“I feel very bullish about the popular vote proposal,” said Richie. “I think that there’s every reason to expect that it will pass if not by 2020, by 2024. I think it actually has a real shot for 2020.”

Experts say it’s not completely clear what reform would lead to except that it’s clear that big cities would play a much larger role in presidential elections. 

“What you will see is significant money in New York and Houston, in Miami, in L.A., and in Chicago,” said Hudak. “You’ll see big cities in red states, big cities in blue states being targeted,” adding that Republicans might also have to target some rural areas as well. 

“I think the original reason for [the Electoral College] is still very much valid today,” said Hans A. von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who supports keeping the system. “The framers were afraid that if the presidency was just based on the national popular vote, then candidates would simply go to the big cities and ignore the rural parts of the country.” 

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