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What Does The Electoral College Do?

Electoral College member Christopher Tumbeiro, right, passes a ballot to Gwen Regalia, before the votes were taken for president and vice president, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
Electoral College member Christopher Tumbeiro, right, passes a ballot to Gwen Regalia, before the votes were taken for president and vice president, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Voters go to the polls on Nov. 8. But the 538 members of the Electoral College vote on Dec. 19.

They’re supposed to follow the popular vote, but there’s always a chance a few might not. And what happens if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are tied?

Political scientist Kyle Dell joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young for a refresher on the Electoral College, and how members of Congress might break a potential tie.

Interview Highlights: Kyle Dell

On the Electoral College’s function

“I think the Electoral College system still acts as somewhat of a brake on someone rising too quickly or someone without the kind of requisite testing, right. It really does push candidates, as an example, into places in this country and into different places across the country that they otherwise wouldn’t go if we were just having a one-day, count-all-the-votes, nationwide popular vote.”

On how electors are selected

“The electors are going to be selected by state-level parties. So, in states like Massachusetts or my state of North Carolina, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party would select what are called a ‘slate of electors.’ These are generally party loyalists, people whose trust is kind of beyond reproach, because when the votes are actually cast, that slate of electors really needs to cast the right vote in order to have that reflect the popular vote that happened in that state.”

On the potential for ‘faithless electors’

“You had, up until a few years ago, the state of Minnesota, actually, the electors were casting their ballots in secret. The challenge there, of course, is that that could promote an elector who would be considered what we would call today a ‘faithless elector,’ changing his or her vote to a different candidate. So, it’s a process that has changed over time, and the goals of the Electoral College, I think, have changed over time. But I think you still have this as sort of an intermediary body between the voters at large and then inauguration day.”

On comparing the Electoral College vote and the popular vote

“There can be this gap between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote. When the gap is in the favor of the winning candidate, it actually enhances what can appear to be a landslide election. Most of our recent presidential elections have been fairly close in the popular vote, but have been real landslides in the Electoral College. That may make new president-elects overconfident in the popularity of their agenda, but it does convey a certain level of democratic soundness, of a voice of the people, of a democratic mandate that we might not otherwise have if we have an election that’s just a popular election and there’s only maybe two or three percentage points difference.”

On the Electoral College in this year’s election

“I think it would be interesting to sit down and to actually kind of model out to see how many states really are in play, how many states still allow their electors that level of discretion. If the electors ended up exercising their discretion in that way — some would say, bravely, in that way — that would really be without precedent within anyone’s lifetime that’s voting today.

“Conceivably, the Electoral College could be a backup plan working with the political parties to say there’s something that wasn’t known that disqualifies a candidate, or, there’s something that happened to a candidate. We saw just this weekend renewed concerns about the health of Hillary Clinton. Well, we have two, by all measures, two very old presidential candidates in comparison to the historic norm. You start to look to, ‘OK, what’s the backup system? What would the plan B be?’ ”


Kyle Dell, political science professor at Guilford College and vice president of the board of directors at Vote Smart, a non-profit and nonpartisan elections research organization. He tweets @DrKDell.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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