Five Things You Should Know About The Electoral College

At least one member of America's electoral college is breaking rank. The New York Times has published an op-ed by Christopher Suprun - a 9/11 first responder and a Texas electoral college member - who has pledged not to vote for President-elect Donald Trump because he believes that the Republican candidate's behavior proves that he is unfit to serve. 

"Alexander Hamilton provided a blueprint for states’ votes," wrote Suprun. "Federalist 68 argued that an Electoral College should determine if candidates are qualified, not engaged in demagogy, and independent from foreign influence. Mr. Trump shows us again and again that he does not meet these standards."

"Fifteen years ago, I swore an oath to defend my country and Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. On Dec. 19, I will do it again."

So instead of casting his ballot for The Donald, he plans to vote for an alternative like Ohio Governor John Kasich (R). And he's calling on his 537 fellow members of the electoral college to do the same.

Which of course raises the question, can he actually do that? Despite the fact that the electoral college decides the presidency, most of us don't know much about it. So here are five must-knows about the EC.

1. Medieval roots

The American electoral college traces its roots back to the Holy Roman Empire - a multi-ethnic conglomeration of territories that ruled Central Europe from the 10th to 19th century C.E. To choose their emperor, a college of rulers from different regions gathered after the death of the previous emperor to cast votes. 

2. The American version

The electoral college was adopted in America as a compromise. Basically, the founding fathers weren't sure whether Congress or the American people should pick the president, so they turned the matter over to a special body of voters.

If neither presidential candidate gets the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the election, the matter goes to Congress. The House votes on who will be president and the Senate decides who will be vice president. That means even if enough electors follow Suprun's lead to obstruct Trump's path to the White House, the Republican-dominated Congress will still likely vote for him and Tim Pence. 

3. Becoming electors

The system for picking electoral college voters varies from state to state. But it basically goes like this. Members of each state's political parties vote on a slate of EC candidates that is either prepared at the party's state convention or by a special party committee. The candidates are generally party members who are being rewarded for their service.

But not everyone can be an elector. Members of Congress are banned, as are people who hold "an Office of Trust of Profit under the United States," according to the Constitution. And anyone who has led an insurrection against the government or has aided America's enemies are disqualified.

So don't hold the door open for Kim Jong-un if you're worried about your EC eligibility.

4. They can vote freely...sorta

Members of the electoral college are not required by federal law to vote for whichever candidate won their state's popular vote. However, state law can require electors to vote for the winner. Electors who fail to do so can be fined or replaced with a substitute elector. So Suprun might be in the clear, but other electors could face punishment if they break rank, which would be unprecedented in American history.

According to the National Archives of the U.S. government, "The Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on the question of whether pledges and penalties for failure to vote as pledged may be enforced under the Constitution. No Elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged."

And only a few EC members have cast votes against the candidate who won their state's popular vote. 

"Today, it is rare for Electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party's candidate. Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party. Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99 percent of Electors have voted as pledged."

5. Some want the college abolished

Despite the fact that the electoral college is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, a lot of people want to get rid of it and let voters pick the president directly. That movement gained a lot more momentum after Election Day 2016, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton brought in 2.5 million more votes than Donald Trump but lost her White House bid.

That led Bill Maher to conclude that the system is broken.

"How do we solve this problem where we [Democrats] win the election, but we don't get to be president," Maher asked former Attorney General Eric Holder last month. "Because this has happened twice now...Al Gore and now Hillary. And it seems to be happening to only one party."

"There's a simple solution to it: we just need to abolish the electoral college," Holder said. 


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