The Specifics of the Electoral College

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What actually happens on Election Day is that voters cast their ballots for a bunch of electors, not technically the presidential candidates whose names are on the ballot. These electors make up the Electoral College.

Each individual state and the District of Columbia will have one list of electors for each presidential candidate. The Democratic Party will have its set of electors, the Republican Party will have its set of electors, etc. The state will then assign the electors who will attend the Electoral College based on which presidential candidate wins the popular vote in that state.

The Electoral College has 538 members, one for every member of Congress. All 538 electors do not meet as one, however; rather, all of the electors for each individual state meet in that state's capitol on the same day to case their ballots. Federal law stipulates that this elector meeting take place on "the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December"; in 2016, that day is December 19.

Each elector is required to sign six certificates acknowledging their presidential selection. Two certificates go to the National Archives. Two certificates go to the state secretary of state. One certificate is lodged with a local judge. The last certificate goes to the president of the U.S. Senate. On January 6, at a joint session of Congress, the results of the electoral vote are read out, alphabetically by state name, and approved. Representatives (House or Senate) of individual states can dispute results recorded in their state; disputes are resolved by one or both houses of Congress, depending on the severity of the dispute.

The only legal restriction for the selection of electors is found in Article II of the Constitution: "No Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector."

Each state and political party has its own for rules for how to select electors. Some states choose electors at state party conventions; other states leave the elector selection to that state party's central committee. Electors are usually state elected officials or state party leaders; some electors have long affiliations with the state political party but have not held elected or party office.

Some electors are well-known personalities. (One of the New York electors in 2016 is former President Bill Clinton; his wife, Democrat Hillary Clinton, won the most popular votes in New York, so electors chosen by the Democratic Party will gather in New York's state capitol, Albany, to cast their electors. So Bill Clinton will be in a position to cast a presidential vote for his wife. The rules allow this. Similarly, California's electoral selection rules allow the winners of the Democratic primary in each congressional race to nominate electors; this has led, in 2016, to a situation similar to the Clintons', in that one of the California electors will be Christine Pelosi, whose mother is the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi.)

Some states pick their slate of electors as early as the spring, months before the November election; other states pick their electors as late as October.

No federal law instructs electors to vote in a certain way. Political convention has long been that electors vote as instructed, meaning that if a Republican presidential candidate wins the popular in a state, then state's electors vote for the Republican candidate. A total of 29 states and D.C. have laws that issue a fine of up to $1,000 to so-called "faithless electors," who do not vote as instructed. In all of the presidential elections so far, very few electors have been "faithless."

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David White