As electors gather in state capitols across the country, here is a rundown of what comes next.
WASHINGTON — On Monday, 538 people will meet to determine who will be the next president.
These meetings of the Electoral College, convened in every state and the District of Columbia just shy of six weeks after Election Day, have long been little more than a formality.
But the victory of President-elect Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote but is projected to win the most electoral votes, has thrust the Electoral College into the spotlight once more. The conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia tried to intervene in the election to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign has only intensified the focus in recent days.
President Barack Obama on Friday described the Electoral College — originally a compromise between those who wanted Congress to choose the president and those who favored a popular vote — as a “vestige.” As electors gather in state capitols across the country, here is a rundown of what comes next.
Q: Who are the electors?
A: In short, the electors are people chosen by their state political parties to cast votes for president and vice president. Electors can be state party leaders or elected officials; sometimes they are individuals with a personal connection to a presidential candidate. Bill Clinton, for instance, is a New York elector this year.
The number of electors each state has is equal to its number of representatives and senators in Congress — 538 in total, with those extra three electors coming from the District of Columbia.
Q: What happens on Monday?
A: Electors will meet in their states, typically at the capital, where they will cast two votes: one for president and one for vice president.
They will then prepare what is called a “certificate of vote” with the results, which is then mailed or delivered via courier to the National Archives, where it becomes part of the nation’s official records, and to Congress.
Q: Do electors have to vote according to popular vote results in their states?
A: Not necessarily. At least one elector has said he will buck his party and not vote for Trump. Nothing in the Constitution, or in federal law, binds electors to vote a particular way. There are some state laws that bind them to vote according to the popular vote outcome in that state; others are bound by more informal pledges to their party.
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Under some state laws, so-called faithless electors who vote against their state’s results may be fined or even disqualified and replaced. No elector has been prosecuted for doing so, but then again, almost every elector has voted with his or her state’s results in the past. The Supreme Court has not weighed in on whether pledges and the related penalties are constitutional.
Q: Who counts the electoral votes?
A: On Friday, Jan. 6, at 1 p.m., members of the House and Senate will meet in the House chamber to count those votes. Vice President Joe Biden, as the departing president of the Senate, is expected to preside over the count, during which every state’s vote is opened and announced in alphabetical order.
Biden will then declare the winner based on who has the majority of votes — at least 270. (That has led, three times, to an awkward moment when the sitting vice president has announced his own defeat, according to the House historian’s office. That happened most recently in 2001, to Al Gore.)
Q: And that’s it?
A: Not quite. At that point, Biden will ask if there are any objections, and lawmakers can then challenge either individual electoral votes or state results as a whole. If an elector has chosen to vote against state results, that is the moment when lawmakers can petition to throw that vote out.
Objections must be in writing and signed by at least one member of the House and one member of the Senate. If there are any objections, the House and Senate then immediately split up to consider them and have just two hours to decide whether they support the objection or not.
Both chambers will then reconvene and share their decisions; if both the House and Senate agree with the objection, then they will throw out the votes in question. But Congress has never sustained an objection to an electoral vote.
After any and all objections have been resolved, the results are considered final. The next step is to swear in the winner on Jan. 20.