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Ask Civics 101: How Does the Electoral College Vote?

Today's listener question: how does the Electoral College vote?

Listen to our quick episode or continue reading for the answer.

The Electoral College is at times an elusive concept. It can help to understand the very practical mechanics behind it. For example, what actually happens on voting day for these electors. We spoke with Jessie Kratz, historian of the National Archives, to learn the details. She took, for an example, the state of Montana.

"[The electors] have a three electoral votes," Jessie explains, "They have one for each senator and then one for their member of Congress. And the three each one of those is a person, I guess, an elector. And so there's three electors or three people. And those three people meet on December 14th to choose the president."

The three electors gather in whatever legislative building is designated by state law. This happens on the second Monday after the first Tuesday in December, this year that's December 14th. Some states require that the elector abide by their role and vote for the person who won the popular vote in that state, while other states allow for "faithless electors," individuals who spurn the popular vote and cast their ballot for whomever they choose.

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"So this is sort of rare, Jessie says, "because the electors are really chosen from the party faithful, so it's really unlikely that they would switch their vote to the opposite party. But that's what they do on December 14th, which is the day the Electoral College meets, they can decide that they want to vote for someone else. And this happened in 2016. An example uses a lecture from Hawaii. It was supposed to vote for Hillary Clinton, but instead voted for Bernie Sanders. And this was totally legitimate because some states have laws that the electors must vote for the popular vote winner. But Hawaii isn't one of them."

The Supreme Court just this year did just issue a decision saying that it is Constitutional for states to penalize faithless electors or to nullify their votes. If the vote checks out according to state law, however, here’s what happens.

"They vote for president and vice president and they vote on two separate ballots," Jessie says, "And these are what we call certificates of vote. And this is the document that shows who the electors chose for president and vice president. And so they create six of these. And these are paired with the the original certificates of ascertainment. And so they create a paper document there and the electors have to sign, seal and certify all six sets of these electoral votes. And then they send them to various officials, including the archivist of the United States. So that's basically what the electors are doing. They're meeting as a group and signing this document, certifying who they're choosing for president and vice president."

Election code in each state dictates how this actually plays out, though. In Massachusetts, for example, the electors nominate and vote on who will be the temporary President, Vice President and Secretary of the Massachusetts Electoral College itself. In some states they nominate a chairperson and various other offices instead. You can watch the meetings of electors on the day-of on C-SPAN or through local news coverage.

And unlike election day for general citizens, the College vote isn’t a secret ballot. You rise and declare who you will be voting for. Which also allows for a rare opportunity to lobby for what you believe in. Even if what you believe in is abolishing the Electoral College.

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.

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