The Electoral College by Dr Elizabeth Monaghan

Images by J. Sobleski

Donald Trump is not the president – yet. Traditionally the formal inauguration takes place in January – the 20th to be precise – during a ceremony at which the president-elect takes the oath of office and delivers their presidential address. But before this there is another step, to be completed today on 19th December, when the Electoral College, observing the outcome of the election on 8th November, formally decides who the president will be.


The electoral college is made up of 538 electors (corresponding to the 435 representatives from the House and 100 senators, plus three from the District of Columbia). Essentially the US presidential election is an indirect election. Voters are voting not for the president but rather for their state’s electors who are, in turn, pledged to one of the candidates. Like many other mechanisms surrounding the electoral process found in established democracies, the electoral college was a compromise. In 1787 when the US Constitution was being drafted there was a disagreement between those who preferred that the president be chosen by Congress and those who argued for the popular election of the president. An electoral college bypassed the potential problems of both: the president would remain independent of Congress and insulated from the unpredictability of a direct mass vote.

For some, the fact that it is not the voters but the electoral college that ultimately picks the president, leaves open the tantalising possibility that Donald Trump will not be elected. The Constitution gives the electors who make up the college the final say in picking the president and there are no laws requiring them to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged – they could, in theory, decide to vote for a candidate to whom they were not pledged (making them so-called ‘faithless electors’). Electors are charged with translating the will of the people into a clear outcome in deciding who the next president will be, yet in this case the function has to be qualified because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by quite some margin. In addition, and even more controversially, one of the original intentions of the electoral college was to prevent a tyrant or individual unsuited to office from becoming the President. What would the founding fathers have made of some of president-elect Trump’s more capricious tweets?

Nevertheless – and stranger things have happened this year – the non-election of Trump, let alone the election of Clinton, is extremely unlikely. At least 37 of the 306 electors pledged to the Republicans would have to choose not to vote for Trump. Even if they did, the likelihood of them switching directly to Clinton, who is widely disliked among Republicans, is even more remote. And if the electoral college could not come to a majority for one of the candidates the matter would be decided by the House of Representatives, now controlled by the Republicans. We are, therefore, unlikely to be surprised by the college’s decision but the quirks of its role have certainly taken on a new relevance in this election.

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