Understanding the Presidential Election and the Electoral College

Breakfast with bwana

By Anil Madan

The Electoral College is not a college in the educational sense that the term is used. The Cambridge English Dictionary provides the applicable definition:

a group of people with a particular job, purpose, duty, or power who are organized into a group for sharing ideas, making decisions, etc.

In the American system of government, the Electoral College is a procedural creation for ratifying a modified majority vote in the Presidential election. Recall that each state has a certain number of representatives in the House and two Senators. The House seats are apportioned based on the census taken every ten years. Currently, the number of representatives is 435. With 50 states, we have 100 Senators. That brings the total to 535.

Each state is awarded electors equal to the number of Representatives and Senators. By the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, the District of Columbia has been awarded seats but not more than the lowest number that any state has which is 3. So we have 538 electors.

The candidate who wins a majority of the electoral votes (at least 270) wins the presidency.

The electors in each state and the District of Columbia are chosen in accordance with state law. The U.S. Constitution allows the states to decide how this will be done.

Currently, in all states, each party chooses the electors that will represent it. The winning slate of electors is chosen by reference to the popular vote for the presidential candidate in every state. In all states but two (Nebraska and Maine), the party whose candidates win the majority of votes for president, has its slate of electors voted to the Electoral College. This is a winner-take-all system. In Nebraska and Maine, the party of the candidate who wins the popular vote in each district is awarded an elector and the remaining two votes go to the party of the winner of the popular vote.

Generally, these are party loyalists who will not stray and vote for someone other than their party’s candidate.

After the general election, there are deadlines involved.

December 14, 2020, is the date on which the electors meet in each state to cast their votes for President and Vice President (according to the results of the popular vote in each state except in Maine and Nebraska as mentioned above).

December 8, 2020, is a safe harbor deadline. It is the federal statutory deadline for resolving all state recounts and court contests over the presidential election.

The results of the December 14 votes are certified to the President of the U.S. Senate (the Vice President of the United States) and copies are required to be sent to the National Archives and Record Administration as well as to the presiding judge of the United States District Court in the District where the electors meet.

December 23, 2020, is the deadline for receipt of the electors’ report of their voting from each state.

January 6, 2021, the U.S. Congress meets in joint session to count the electoral votes. The 12th Amendment provides:

“The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted. The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.”

But what if no one so qualifies. Then there is this convoluted language of the 12th Amendment:

“if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President-The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. “

January 20, 2021, the term of the current President ends and the President-elect is sworn in as the next President of the United States. Unless there is no President-elect chosen and then we have the Speaker of the House succeeding to the presidency.

Sometimes I write: This too shall pass.

Today, I write that either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris (we have to allow for the possibility that due to Biden’s age he may not survive) will be sworn as President on January 20, 2021, and none of the rest of this will come to pass.


* Published in print edition on 20 November 2020

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