Often misunderstood and frequently maligned, the U.S. Electoral College is typically an institution that goes about its work every four years with little fanfare and even less scrutiny.
Not this year.
The college, a group of 538 people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., will formally elect the 45th president of the United States “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December,” as laid out by U.S. law.
That meeting this year will be Monday (December 19), and the expectation is the man they will choose will be Republican Donald Trump.
But in a reflection of the unconventional election campaign that Trump waged against against his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, the Electoral College’s meeting this year is turning into something less than conventional, facing scrutiny not seen in generations -- if ever.
That’s due in large part because Clinton won the overall popular vote in the November 8 election. Most recent tallies show Clinton ahead of Trump by close to 3 million votes, one of the largest vote leads in many years.
The wrinkle in this, however, is that under the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is the institution that chooses the president, not the popular vote. And because Trump won more votes than Clinton in specific states -- Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in particular -- Trump has garnered more Electoral College votes than Clinton, 306 to 232.
Adding to the anxiety is the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian government-backed hackers accessed political party computer servers during the campaign.
Reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times last week deepened concern, citing unidentified CIA officials as saying that Russian hackers may have specifically sought to bolster Trump’s campaign -- allegations Trump himself has derided.
Claire Ayer, a Democratic state senator in Vermont who served as an Electoral College elector in 2012, said she remembers similar anxiety in 2000, when Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote, but Republican George W. Bush ended up with more Electoral College votes. But this year, she said, it seems much worse.
“It’s gotten the kind of attention it has because people are very worried about Donald Trump. We didn’t have that same sort of anxiety about Bush and Gore,” she said.
State capital ceremonies
The actual event of casting the Electoral College votes in 2012, when Barack Obama won the popular vote and the Electoral College, lacked much ceremony, she said. She and the state’s other two electors showed up in the Vermont capital, Montpelier, “got a pep talk from the [Vermont] secretary of state and signed a few papers.”
Similar ceremonies will be held in other state capitals on Monday.
Electoral College electors are allocated according to state populations, and selected by political parties in each state. Neither the constitution nor federal law have contain provision requiring them to follow the results of the popular vote in their states.
In a handful of states, state law requires them to cast their votes according to popular vote. In other places they are bound by pledges to the political parties that selected them.
Those who defy their states’ rules, or the popular vote, are often called “faithless electors.” This year, another title has emerged -- “Hamilton electors.”
That’s a reference to Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary and co-author of an influential set of papers published in 1787-1788 arguing for the ratification of the constitution. One of the papers argues that the Electoral College’s main goal is to thwart any “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”
Possible block to election
One such group has taken that very name, arguing that electors should vote not for Trump, but for another Republican. If Trump’s opponents gather enough support to persuade at least 37 electors to not back him, that would block his election and send the final decision to the House of Representatives, under rules that are explicitly laid out in the constitution.
“The Founding Fathers intended the Electoral College to stop an unfit man from becoming president. The constitution they crafted gives us this tool. Conscience demands that we use it,” the group said.
The group did not immediately respond to e-mails seeking further information about the effort.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed by Trump.
His campaign intervened in a legal bid by two electors in Colorado -- where Trump lost the popular vote -- to unbind them from the state requirement to choose the state’s popular vote winner. A federal judge there on December 12 rejected the attempt, calling it a “political stunt.”
"Your vote should count when you vote for president,” Chris Murray, an attorney representing Trump and the campaign, was quoted by The Denver Post as saying.
Other electors, meanwhile, have requested an intelligence briefing to get more information about the Russian hacking reports, out of concerns over potential undue foreign influence in Trump’s election.
“The electors require to know from the intelligence community whether there are ongoing investigations into ties between Donald Trump, his campaign or associates, and Russian government interference in the election, the scope of those investigations, how far those investigations may have reached, and who was involved in those investigations,” said one group of 10 members in an open letter published December 12.
It wasn’t immediately clear that had ever happened before, or if there had even been such a request. But Ayer, the state senator from Vermont, said she didn’t think much of that idea.
“It seems sort of silly,” she said. “One little briefing from one sort of people doesn’t give you the authority to overturn the constitution.”