Welcome to my new Q&A series on the Electoral College. I am getting many questions about election logistics in my inbox these days, so I am hoping this proves helpful.
Today's topics: Who are the electors? How are they appointed? Must they vote for the popular vote winner?
Who are the electors?
Perhaps the most important thing to know about electors is that each candidate has his own slate of people prepared to vote for him. We are not asking a slate of Democratic electors to stay faithful to a pledge to vote for Donald Trump if he wins a particular state. In my home state of Texas, for example, there are 38 Republicans prepared to vote for Trump if he wins. There are 38 Democrats prepared to vote for Joe Biden if he wins. Each third-party candidate also has his or her own slate of electors.
Thus, when you vote on Election Day, you are not actually voting for the presidential candidate himself. You are voting for which slate of electors you want. The state will use the statewide popular vote to determine which slate of electors to appoint.
How does each party appoint its electors?
The process varies by state, but usually the political parties select their electors at the state party conventions during the summer of a presidential election year. One important thing to know about electors: They cannot be federal officials because the Constitution specifically provides that “no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”
By and large, the electors tend to be grassroots people. They are your next door neighbor. I once asked a Texas elector what he’d want Americans to know about him, if he had the chance. His response, in a nutshell? “I’m just a normal person, like you.”
The Founders took a few steps to keep the Electoral College from being corrupted:
First, they deliberately created the office of elector so that it would be held as a one-time office. The electors have one task to accomplish. When they are finished with that one task, they are disbanded and relieved of their duties. They have no other function to perform. The Founders viewed this as a benefit of the system: Bodies of elected officials that meet for long periods of time can sometimes be easier to corrupt.
Second, the electors meet in separate locations—usually at their respective state capitals. They do not meet at a central location in D.C. Electors can be harder to corrupt when they are so far apart from each other, just as a matter of pure logistics.
Are electors bound to vote for states’ popular vote winners?
Again, it varies by state. Some states have laws prohibiting electors from casting their ballots for someone else. Some states provide that the elector is immediately replaced and his vote voided as soon as he tries to cast an “illegal” vote. Some states impose fines and penalties. In many other states, electors are not bound or are bound only be a pledge to a political party.
The Supreme Court recently held that laws binding electors can be enforced. This author disagreed with that decision for reasons that I described in an editorial, here. Nevertheless, that is the state of the law for now. And, historically, the issue has been something of a moot point.
Electors generally do not cast ballots contrary to expectations because of the manner in which they are selected. Remember that Republican electors are selected to cast ballots for any Republican presidential candidate that wins a state. Democratic electors are selected to cast ballots for any Democratic candidate that wins. We are not asking a Biden partisan to cast a ballot for Trump or vice versa.
These are grassroots people who have been working for their party’s candidate; they want to vote for the winner of the states’ popular votes. In fact, so-called faithless electors have been such a non-issue that we generally don’t even know who our electors are until after the election. No faithless elector has ever changed an election outcome.
As a matter of history, most electors have been extremely reluctant to break the trust placed in them, even when placed under great pressure. In fact, there have been fewer than 30 indisputably faithless electors since 1796. Several of these occurred in 2016 when a handful of Democratic electors sought compromise with Republican electors, but most of these faithless votes were cast simply because an elector saw an opportunity to make a political statement. No faithless vote has ever changed the outcome of an election.
Please don’t miss my books about the Electoral College! Books for both adults and kids are available HERE.