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Mysteries of the Electoral College explained

In modern times, the college's vote has become a mere formality between Election Day and the president's inauguration. Here's a guide to why that hasn't been the case this year, and what's expected to happen when the college meets on Dec. 19.

With a week to go until members of the Electoral College meet to cast their votes, pressure is mounting on electors in some states that went for Donald Trump, including Pennsylvania, to vote for someone else.

In modern times, the college's vote has become a mere formality between Election Day and the president's inauguration. Here's a guide to why that hasn't been the case this year, and what's expected to happen when the college meets on Dec. 19.

What happens on Dec. 19?

The 538 members of the Electoral College officially pick the president. The electors meet in each state and Washington, D.C. When people vote for president on Election Day, they are actually voting for a slate of electors. The electors are chosen by the political parties in each state; the presidential candidate who wins the most votes in a state is supposed to get all of the state's electoral votes (except in Maine and Nebraska, where the statewide winner gets two electoral votes; the other electoral votes are awarded by congressional district).

Why the controversy in the lead up to this year's Electoral College vote?

Many people want the electors to vote for someone other than Donald Trump. A petition, signed by more than 4.8 million people, calls the Republican "unfit to serve" and urges the Electoral College members to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Electors say they have been flooded with phone calls, emails and letters from people who think they should not vote for Trump.

Beyond Trump's divisive campaign, the petition's supporters have noted that Clinton won the popular vote. Trump won 306 electoral votes to Clinton's 232 (270 electoral votes are needed to win the presidency), while Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million ballots. Further complicating matters, supporters of Green Party candidate Jill Stein have petitioned for recounts in several states; a federal judge on Monday rejected the motion for a Pennsylvania recount. The recount efforts have added more fuel to the discussion that the Nov. 8 results could somehow be overturned.

Is there any chance someone other than Trump would be elected when the college convenes?

Not really. There is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state, but 29 states and the District of Columbia require electors to pledge to vote for their party's nominee. Neither Pennsylvania's 20 electors nor New Jersey's 14 electors are bound, however. The number of electors is based on the number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives (each state also gets two electoral votes for its two senators) .

But election experts consider it highly unlikely that enough electors – bound or unbound – would vote for someone other than their state's winner. Multiple election experts told that it was constitutionally possible for Clinton to win, but pegged the chance of that happening as very low.

What experts told FactCheck:
Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School: In the current situation, where both incumbent President Obama and the candidate who won a popular majority nationwide, Hillary Clinton, have made such a huge point of accepting Donald Trump as the President-elect, and where both Obama and Clinton have repeatedly insisted that such acceptance is vital to the peaceful transition our democracy requires, I frankly cannot imagine either of them supporting the proposed move to have the Electoral College elect the former Secretary of State on December 19. And, without their support, the move seems doomed to fail.
Richard Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law: "The electors are mostly people connected to the political party leadership in their states. So if you try to picture how this might happen, it would have to be the party leadership in some group of states that is convinced to abandon Trump."
Kermit Roosevelt, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School: While there is "no clear requirement in the Constitution that electors vote for the candidate they're pledged to … it's very unlikely that defections will happen now."

What are Pennsylvania's electors saying?

The Associated Press spoke by telephone with nearly all of Pennsylvania's electors this month, and they were emphatic that they would vote for Trump. They also said they have been inundated by requests from people who are hoping, apparently in vain, that the electors will pick someone else.

What Pennsylvania electors told the AP:
Joyce Haas: "I would not even dream of disenfranchising all of those Pennsylvanians who voted for Donald Trump. I am representing them."
Mary Barket: "The folks have spoken, the voters have spoken. I take that responsibility seriously."
Ash Khare: "I do not read those idiot emails."
Peg Ferraro: "I'm very excited about it, because it is a part of history."

What are other electors saying?

A handful of electors, sometimes called "faithless electors," have vowed to vote against Trump. Christopher Suprun, a Republican elector from Texas, was the first to publicly say he wound not support Trump, writing in a New York Times op-ed that he would not "cast a vote on Dec. 19 for someone who shows daily he is not qualified for the office" and arguing that electors "should unify behind a Republican alternative." Another Texas Republican elector, Art Sisneros, resigned to avoid casting a vote for Trump. In Colorado, two electors filed a lawsuit challenging the state law that requires them to vote for the state's popular vote winner; that lawsuit has since been followed by similar suits in California and Washington state.

Have there been "faithless electors" before?

Yes, but relatively few: More than 99 percent of electors in the nation's history have voted as pledged, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. In total, there have been 157 faithless electors, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that advocates for electoral reform.

The very first faithless elector was from Pennsylvania: In 1796, Pennsylvania elector Samual Miles cast his vote for Thomas Jefferson instead of John Adams. That action earned him ire from voters. One angry Pennsylvanian, according to FairVote, wrote to the Gazaette of the United States: "What, do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be president? No! I choose him to act, not to think."

Some of the votes by faithless electors were not out of rebellion. In some cases, electors changed their vote because their candidate died before the college met, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The last time an elector defected was in 2004, when a Minnesota elector voted for John Edwards for both vice president and president. It's not known whom that elector was or whether the vote was intentional or a mistake.

Have these electors ever had an impact?

Sort of. One election was influenced by a faithless-elector situation, though it ultimately didn't affect who took office. According to the National Constitution Center: "In 1836, while Martin Van Buren won the presidential election outright, nearly two dozen faithless electors refused to vote for Van Buren's vice presidential running mate, Richard Mentor Johnson. On February 9, 1837, Congress opened the vote certificates and confirmed that 23 electors in Virginia voted for another candidate, William Smith of Alabama."

The lack of those 23 votes meant there was no majority in the Electoral College, so the decision went to the Senate – which voted for Johnson as vice president.

How did this system get started, anyway?

As Smithsonian Magazine notes, the Electoral College was born from divisiveness. The Founding Fathers didn't have much faith in the general public. And the system, like how congressional representation was allocated, was in large part the result of compromise between slave and free states. The magazine wrote earlier this month: "Created by the framers of the Constitution during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the College was put forth as a way to give citizens the opportunity to vote in presidential elections, with the added safeguard of a group of knowledgeable electors with final say on who would ultimately lead the country, another limit on the burgeoning nation's democratic ideals.

"The story of the Electoral College is also one of slavery—an institution central to the founding of American democracy. The bulk of the new nation's citizenry resided in cities like Philadelphia and Boston in the North, leaving the South sparsely populated by farmers, plantation owners, other landholders, and, of course, enslaved laborers. This disparity in the population distribution became a core element of the legislative branch, and in turn, the Electoral College."

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