Electors from the 50 states will convene in their state capitols Monday and cast their votes for president. Republican Donald Trump is assured of a victory, unless there is a massive — and totally unexpected — defection by the electors who are pledged to support him.
Here are five things you should know about the Electoral College:
1. How do you get to be an elector?
The Constitution leaves it up to each state to select its electors, but "there are two main ways," said George Edwards, a distinguished professor of political science at Texas A&M University:
One is at state party conventions, when party members select a slate of electors, often party officials, almost always party insiders. That's how Jonathan Barnett was chosen. He's a Trump elector in Arkansas and was elected during his state party convention in August. Barnett believes that, as a former state representative and national GOP committeeman, he was chosen because of his "dedication and loyalty to the party, and history with the party as a known factor."
That last point is important, because, he said, his phone has been ringing off the hook with people opposed to Trump, calling to plead with him to vote for someone else.
"Absolutely not" going to happen, he said.
The alternative to being selected at a state party convention is being chosen by the party's central committee or otherwise qualifying. Karen Packer, a Democratic elector in Oregon, was chosen automatically by virtue of her position as state party first vice chair.
She said she is "very honored" to be an elector, even if in a losing cause. She said she has a certificate "suitable for framing" and signed by the Oregon secretary of state. Oregon's seven electors will cast their ballots in the state Senate chamber in Salem.
2. Are electors legally bound to vote for their party's nominee?
Some states have passed laws to prevent so-called "faithless electors" from straying from their party's nominee. In other states, parties require electors to sign pledges of their loyalty. But Edwards isn't sure the state laws, which have not been challenged, would hold up in court. He believes they're unconstitutional, because, he said, "the Constitution gives electors the right to exercise discretion."
In fact, he said, the founders expected electors to act independently, as there were no political parties at the time. He notes that electors were chosen by state legislatures until the 1830s.
3. Can anyone become an elector?
Yes, except for federal officeholders, such as members of Congress or the executive branch. The states are required to submit "Certificate(s) of Ascertainment" listing their electors by Dec. 19 to the Office of the Federal Register, which administers the process.
4. So the electors meet in their state capitols Monday and cast their ballots for president. Then what?
The states then submit a Certificate of Vote to the Federal Register, listing each person who received a vote for president and for vice president. There are to be six such certificates in each state, signed by each of that state's electors.
Two of the certificates are then to be sent to Washington, with a copy to the vice president in his role as president of the Senate, and to the National archivist. (They have to be received in Washington by the president of the Senate and archivist by Dec. 28. See other key dates and processes here, from the National Archives and Records Administration.)
On Jan. 6, the votes will be formally tallied before a Joint Session of Congress, and assuming someone gets a majority, or 270, electors, we'll officially know our next president.
5. This seems to be a pretty convoluted way of choosing a leader, isn't it?
Edwards certainly believes so. "It's a bizarre way of doing things," he said.
There are efforts to change it, especially after this past election, which saw the winner of the popular vote lose the election for the second time in the past five elections. The National Popular Vote proposal would guarantee the winner of the popular vote is the winner of the presidency. It needs support from enough states to add up to 270 electoral votes. It has so far been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes.
But it is unlikely to be adopted by a majority of states anytime soon.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This is the day when electors from all 50 states, the Electoral College, will cast their votes for president. Donald Trump is assured of a victory unless there is some massive and unexpected defection. NPR's Brian Naylor looks at how the process actually works.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's a convoluted process that the founders left us to go about choosing a president.
GEORGE EDWARDS: It's a bizarre way of doing things.
NAYLOR: That's George Edwards, distinguished professor of political science at Texas A&M. He says the founders didn't want the nation's citizens to directly vote for president. So on Election Day, what people actually voted for as they cast their ballots for Trump or Clinton or someone else was an elector for that candidate. How do you get to be an elector? Edwards says there are two main ways.
EDWARDS: One is that at state party conventions, which would be held before the presidential election, of course, the party selects a slate of electors to represent that party in the election.
NAYLOR: That's how Jonathan Barnett was chosen. He's a Trump elector in Arkansas and was elected during his state party convention in August. Barnett believes that, as a former state representative and national GOP committeeman, he was chosen because of his long ties to the party.
JONATHAN BARNETT: I think it's a combination, but mostly dedication and loyalty to the party and history with the party as a known factor.
NAYLOR: Professor Edwards says there is another way for people to become electors who are not selected by a state convention.
EDWARDS: Generally, the alternative is a central party committee selects a slate of electors.
NAYLOR: And that's how Karen Packer became a Democratic elector in Oregon. She's vice chair of the Oregon Democratic Party and automatically qualified for the job. She's looking forward to voting today, even if in a losing cause.
KAREN PACKER: I feel very honored. I got an actual certificate, and it's suitable for framing. We all meet in the Senate chambers at the state capitol and signify our votes.
NAYLOR: It's mostly party officials or activists who become electors. The only disqualifications are federal office holders, like members of Congress or people in the executive branch. And there is no clause in the Constitution that requires electors to remain loyal. While some states have passed laws requiring electors to vote for their party's nominee - the so-called faithless electors issue - Edwards says it's not clear if they would hold up in court.
EDWARDS: I would argue that they're not enforceable because they're unconstitutional, that the Constitution gives electors the right to exercise discretion.
NAYLOR: The votes cast today in each state capitol will be sent to Washington. They'll be formally tallied on January 6 during a joint session of Congress.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.