My friend Jason recently messaged me requesting a post on electors, the people who make up the electoral college. My first response was "silly Jason, the electoral college isn't actually made up of people who vote for a nominee. That would be insane, and could possibly lead to the electoral college voting for someone who did not win the popular vote. Our country would never let that happen."
Wow, was I wrong. It only took a couple of Google searches for me to go from "the electoral college is just a way of easily showing who won the election" to "THERE ARE NO LAWS GOVERNING ELECTORS WHY ARE WE NOT RIOTING IN THE STREETS?!" So let's follow that trajectory, shall we?
When explaining the electoral college to people, I usually just hit the high points. There are 538 electors, the sum total of each state's Congressional Representatives and Senators, plus three votes for DC. A candidate needs 270 to win the election. More populous states have more electors, and even the smallest states are guaranteed three, because each state has one Congressperson and two Senators.
What I didn't know was that there are actually people who are selected to be electors who actually vote for a candidate. The system of 538 votes is based on the actual votes of living, breathing people. There's no standardized method of selecting electors, and States are left to their own devices (thanks a lot Federalism). Usually, someone is chosen to be an elector as a reward for service to their political party, and can be state elected officials, party leaders, or others at the state level. Even though the number of electors are determined by how many Congresspeople a state has, members of Congress and employees of the Federal government cannot be electors.
It's still a little unclear to me how many electors there really are. That's because all the official paperwork makes it clear that party loyalty matters a lot in picking electors. This lead me to think that each political party has a full set of electors for each state. For example, there are three Democrat electors in Wyoming AND three Republicans, and the candidate that gets the most votes in their state is awarded the three electors from their party, not a mix of electors with a variety of different political affiliations.
There used to be a custom where electors were listed on the ballot with the candidates, and people could vote for individual electors. Those of you who voted in New York saw a similar set up on your primary ballots. Candidates were listed, and then had six delegates listed next to them who you could vote for. In the presidential election, this caused some problems, where people would vote for electors of both parties, leaving the electorate split. Kind of like when my friend voted for only female delegates in the New York primary, which means she voted for three Clinton delegates and three Sanders delegates.
Today, individual electors are not listed on the ballot, and in 48 states, candidates receive the full amount of electors (Maine and Nebraska split electors based on the percentage of the vote each candidate received). What I have found in researching this blog post is that it's very unclear whether or not there are two slates of electors, one for each political party. It's unclear because everything written on the Internet about electors is either taken from the National Archives, or a paper from the Federal Elections Commission written in 1992. My educated guess is that there is a slate of electors for each candidate, and when the candidate wins, only the electors from their party vote.
I guess that because it turns out there is no Federal law mandating electors to vote a certain way. Some states have laws preventing electors from voting contrary to the popular vote, and some state political parties have electors sign a party pledge, promising that they won't vote outside of the party. In total, 25 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring that electors follow the popular vote, and some of those states have party pledges as well.
For those of you playing along at home, that means that HALF the states in this country do not require their electors to follow the popular vote. This results in the possibility of something called "faithless electors" who cast their votes outside of the popular vote or the party line. Since electors are chosen for their party loyalty, this happens very rarely. The most recent example was 2004, when an elector in Minnesota cast his vote for John Edwards instead of John Kerry (which, come on, really?). The last time an elector actually crossed party lines was 1972, when a Republican elector voted for the Libertarian candidate. This was also the year that every state but Massachusetts voted for Nixon, so I'm sure that the President wasn't too mad about this one faithless elector.
But just because it hasn't happened often doesn't mean it won't happen in the future. Once again, thanks to Federalism, our country has no specific laws governing electors. This could mean that if there's a supremely unpopular racist who, oh I don't know, owns a chain of hotels and crappy steaks, and insists he's going to bring manufacturing back to America, and is the presidential nominee, electors in 25 states can legally ignore that and vote for whoever they want. Again, these are people chosen for their party loyalty so that's unlikely, but so was the entire candidacy of Donald Trump, so who knows what could happen.