On November 7th, 2016 we learned about

The Electoral College: elections for electors who pick the next President

What feels like a decade of campaign-oriented stress and exhaustion is wrapping up soon, but it’s technically incorrect to say it’s all settled by the time we pass out go to bed on November 8th. While the average voter’s role in the election should be settled, the next president won’t have the job once those votes are tallied, because technically, none of us voted for president. All the fighting, canvassing and more was really to get you to vote for a ticket to be acted on by a group of people who’s names you probably don’t even know. This isn’t actually some kind of conspiracy or subterfuge, it’s just the complicated system known as the Electoral College.

Voting for a voter to vote

Even though voting can feel like a very personal response to candidates, everyone on election day is technically voting for a Presidential ticket for a particular party. It’s not clear on every state’s ballot, but that ticket also carries a list of names of electors that will vote in the Electoral College later on. The number of electors per state match that state’s Congressional representation— California will have 55 electors, while smaller states like Wyoming will choose just 3 per ticket. These people are chosen for a variety of reasons, usually with ties or loyalties to the particular political party running the ticket.

Once voters have cast their ballots, the votes are tallied to see which slate of electors will actually have a chance to vote for President. Most states are looking for a simple majority to determine a winner, but Maine and Nebraska complicate things by breaking things up by looking for overall winners and winners of congressional districts, allowing for split allocations of electors. One the winning tickets are determined, governors of each state certify the results and designate that state’s electors. Those electors then get to cast two votes— one for President, and one for Vice President, although this hasn’t always been true. Before the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804, each elector voted for two Presidential nominees, with the winner becoming president and the runner-up becoming the Vice President (which would have produced some amazing odd-couples in recent elections!)

As a consequence of this very indirect democracy is that electors don’t always have to vote according to the outcome of the election that made them an elector in the first place. On 22 different occasions, so called “faithless electors” voted for a candidate that didn’t win their state’s popular vote, although the majority of those votes were thanks to the winning candidate dying before they could be voted into office. Some states actually have have laws against being a faithless elector, although nobody has ever been prosecuted.

As if this didn’t feel convoluted enough, Congress also gets involved before the election is over. If electors across the country somehow tie, the House of Representatives get to pick the President. If Vice Presidents somehow need a tie broken, the Senate picks. Even if a tie is avoided thanks to a candidate recieving 270 or more electoral votes, a joint session of Congress is expected to count all the electoral votes, with the sitting Vice President, as President of the Senate, finally gets to officially announce the next President. Naturally, none of this is expected to be done for months, which is why things aren’t technically settled until January.

Timing arranged for agriculture

The timing of US Presidential elections is appropriately archaic to go along with all the various steps outlined above. Elections are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This date was selected when agriculture was a major occupation around the country, and farmers needed time to finish harvesting, but not be so deep into winter that travel became difficult. Tuesday was selected because it was supposed to be convenient, again for farmers. They usually delivered crops to market on Wednesdays, which meant everyone should have had a bit of time on Tuesday to fit in voting. Subsequent steps operate on a similar timescale, with electors voting in candidates in December, and Congress finalizing things in early January. We can only imagine the scheduling if our Constitution were written today to best accommodate cable news and Twitter.

The exception to all this layered, indirect action is the day of transition when the new President takes the oath of office. During the various inaugural activities, teams at the White House have no more than six hours to move the sitting President out of the building, clean and repaint walls, then moving the new first family in. Teams of people have to be extremely quick and coordinated to make sure that the new President’s clothes are in the closets, books are on the shelves and everything is ready to go, because the President really doesn’t have time to dig through that last couple of boxes in the corner to find what they’re looking for. After over a year of campaigning, months of voting, and then six hours to move in, it’s finally time to go to work.

Source: What is the Electoral College?, Archives.gov

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