by Carolyn Shapiro, Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States at Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law
On Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, the 538 members of the Electoral College will gather in their states to cast their votes for president. The expected outcome is that they will elect Donald Trump. But this year there has been a surprising amount of discussion of a different result, thanks to efforts of some electors themselves and a variety of academics, writers and advocates.
Article II, section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution provide the framework for the Electoral College. Every state has a number of electors equal to their congressional representation – two Senators plus the state’s House delegation. (Under the Twenty-third Amendment, the District of Columbia also has three electors.) The state legislatures have the authority to determine how the electors are selected and there is no requirement that the selection be by popular vote. Nor is there a requirement that the states assign their electors on a winner-take-all basis, as almost all do. (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions.)
Once the electors are selected, they meet in their states and cast their ballots. They certify the votes and send them to Congress, which will meet in early January to count the votes. To become president, a candidate must receive a majority – at least 270 – of the electoral votes. If no candidate receives 270 votes, then the House of Representatives, voting in state delegations with each state receiving one vote, must choose between the top three electoral-college vote-getters.
This system is an odd way to run an election in the 21st century. Its roots are in compromises made at the Founding to protect slavery and (arguably) to ensure the influence of smaller states. Some argue that there was no expectation that the electors would exercise independent judgment. But as Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 68, the Framers were concerned that the people might be taken in by an unqualified candidate and they wanted to ensure that “[t]alents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” would not displace the “requisite qualifications” for the presidency. And, he added, “every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” Finally, he argued that the electoral college would protect the country against “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” It is hard to read this explanation for the Electoral College without wondering if Hamilton was prescient.