On Dec. 14, 538 individuals will gather in 50 locations across the country. They will affix their signatures to a series of legal documents that will be dispatched to Washington, D.C. to be unsealed and tallied during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.
This is the election day you rarely hear about.
Most years, the vote of the electoral college is just one of a series of procedural, pro-forma steps before the Oval Office welcomes a new occupant, with little fanfare or attention.
But this year, plenty of electoral minutia — from the auditing of provisional ballots to the role of canvassing boards to the certification of elections — has been thrown into the national spotlight, scrutinized in the papers, on cable news and on social media.
So, if there’s ever a year to bone up on the ins and outs of what the electoral college is, what its members do, and why they do it this way, it’s 2020. Here's what you need to know:
1. Who exactly are these people?
Electors are the only 538 people in the country who actually cast votes for the president and vice president of the United States. The rest of us are simply casting our votes for them.
The number of electors in each state is determined by adding up the total number of members in that state’s congressional delegation. Every state has two senators, but the number of House members is determined by the size of a state's population. This is why California, for example, has far more electoral votes than Rhode Island.
The U.S. Constitution requires that each state appoint these electors for each presidential election. People holding federal office are barred from being electors, but otherwise it’s left up to each state to determine how its electors are chosen.
In most states, electors are selected at each party's state convention. In some states, including Massachusetts, electors are chosen by the parties’ state committees.
Typically, the parties select active volunteers, party members or leaders, and state or local officials as electors.
“I feel honored and I feel humbled,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, one of Massachusetts’ 11 presidential electors this year. “I feel the weight of it … the weight of history. I’m excited.”
Because Massachusetts has a total of 11 electoral votes, each party selects 11 electors ahead of a presidential election. So, by the time election day rolls around, the state has each political party’s slate of electors in place. When residents vote for president on Election Day, they are technically voting for that party’s slate of electors.
2. How do you get the job?
In essence, you apply. Or — perhaps more accurately — you run.
“It’s very competitive,” said LaChapelle, who noted there were close to 20 Democratic candidates for the 11 positions this year.
Candidates put their names forward and are ultimately selected via a vote by the party’s state committee.
And it takes some work to get the gig.
This year, LaChapelle ran what she called “a regular campaign for a quiet office” that included emailing the voting members of the state committee and “phone banking for myself.”
As for why she ran, LaChapelle said wanted this year's electoral class to include someone representing municipal government and a person from western Massachusetts. Her inclusion would tick both of those boxes.
But, above all, what drove her is the fact that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the U.S. LaChapelle said that, by tradition, people don’t run to be electors more than once. So if she was ever going to do it, this was the year.
“I felt urged on and inspired,” she said. “It’s my homage to them … the hundreds of thousands of women who got us to this point.”
3. What do these electors actually do?
The electoral college doesn’t ever actually gather as a single body. Instead, each state’s electors meet in their respective state capital to cast their votes.
In Massachusetts, the vote takes place during a ceremony at the State House, typically full of pomp and circumstance.
“[It’s] very pageant-like, given the gravity and the honor of what we’re doing,” said LaChapelle. Each electoral class, she said, has some say over how the ceremony looks, but it’s a scene that could perhaps best be described as an election prom.
“You’re seeing a lot of black — black suits, black tuxes — women in long gowns or very structured, elegant pant suits,” she said.
Amid the pageantry, the electors cast their votes, signing the official documents that will be sent off to D.C. to be officially counted during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 and then kept in the National Archives.
The date of this quadrennial meeting, and others like it in states across the country, is prescribed in U.S. election law as the Monday after the second Wednesday in December. This year, that falls on Dec. 14. And like nearly everything else in 2020, it will be paired down due to the pandemic.
“It’ll be very functional,” said LaChapelle. It should take less than an hour, there will be no guests and — under the circumstances — far less pomp. Though one thing that will remain is the formalwear.
“I’m going to wear my grandmother’s pearls and her pearl earrings,” said LaChapelle. “She’s one of my heroes.”
4. Why do we do it this way?
The system that we call the electoral college was laid out in Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution.
“Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…”
According to Edward Foley, professor and director of the election law program at Ohio State University, the framers of the Constitution realized this wasn’t exactly their best work.
“They actually got around to building the electoral college late,” he said. “They really kinda hurried at the end, because it was a long hot summer and they wanted to get home.”
Foley said the framers understood there would be interest groups and political factions — such as merchants, farmers, and bankers — but hoped the president would be “a consensus figure who would be above what they called factional politics,” Foley said. And they had the perfect man in mind to set the tone right from the start.
“The original version [of the electoral college] was built for George Washington,” said Foley. “It was obvious who they wanted to be the first president.”
But once Washington left office, the dream that future presidents could float above the political fray the way he had quickly dissolved.
Foley said two distinct political parties emerged in the early years of the American experiment: The Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and what we today call the Democrat-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
And following a contentious election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, it was clear the young nation’s electoral system was already in need of an update.
“It was never going to be a consensus choice anymore,” said Foley. “They knew it was going to be one side or the other. And they thought, well, if it’s one or the other, it better be the majority. So, they rewrote the mechanics of the process to get to a majority winner.”
This updated version is laid out by the 12th Amendment and is essentially the system we use today. And unlike the haste with which the framers set up the initial electoral college, Foley said that serious time, effort, and thought went into revising it in 1803.
“The debates are quite rich,” he said. “They’re very philosophical; talking about, what are our fundamental principles of this new government that we created? What do we want it to be?”
Foley said the 12th Amendment sought to balance republican principles — a government of, by, and for the people — with federalist principles — the notion that our system, while having a central government, is still a federation of separate states.
“The electoral college may not be the best way to achieve majority rule but that’s what they were trying to accomplish,” he said. “They thought that they could create a system whereby you were obligated to get a majority of electoral votes by winning majorities at the level of the states.”
5. Does it work how it was designed?
“We’re not even operating the system according to its own premises,” said Foley.
Crucial to that premise, said Foley, is the concept of winning a majority. By the time the 12th Amendment was being considered, Foley said lawmakers had accepted that there would be political parties. But they had thought there would be just two political parties.
“[The system] wasn’t built for the possibility of extra candidates, like Ralph Nader in 2000, or Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in 2016, or Ross Perot in 1992,” Foley said.
If there are just two candidates on the ballot, the winner will always win a majority. But while we have two dominant political parties, there are almost always more than two presidential candidates on the ballot. And as third-party candidates became more commonplace, Foley said states responded by adjusting the way they allotted their electoral votes.
“States, in their own laws, abandoned this majority requirement and instead substituted this concept of plurality winners,” Foley said.
The upshot, he said, is that, today, presidential candidates regularly receive less than 50 percent of the vote in a state but achieve a plurality as the top vote-getter among many. This means that more people vote against them than for them, yet they win the entirety of that state’s electoral votes.
He pointed out that in 2016, then candidate Donald Trump won about 100 electoral votes from states where he had won under 50 percent of the vote. And in 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidency while only receiving a majority vote in his home state of Arkansas and the District of Columbia.
“In a way we have the worst of both worlds,” said Foley. “We’re neither a fully-functioning two-party system nor are we really a fully-functioning multi-party system. And it introduces a kind of irrationality, unfortunately, into the system … that I think that’s an underappreciated part of the story.”
6. Is it time to do it a different way?
Plenty of people think so, including Foley, who is in favor of eliminating the electoral college and instead electing the president by popular vote, with a majority requirement of some kind built in.
And the calls for reform are not just a recent phenomenon. According to the National Archives, there have been more than 700 proposals introduced in Congress over the past 200 years to either reform or eliminate the electoral college.
“It’s come close a couple of times, it just hasn’t been able to clear the hurdle,” said Foley.
One proposal that gathered some real momentum came in 1954, courtesy of Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge — a Republican — who teamed up with Texas Rep. Ed Gossett — a Democrat — to propose a constitutional amendment that would reform the electoral college.
Their idea was to instead divvy up each state’s electoral votes proportionally to the popular vote in that state, carried out to three decimal points. It also required an overall plurality — rather than a majority — of electoral votes for a win, so long as that total eclipsed a 40% threshold.
By their plan, for example, Donald Trump would have received 3.586 of Massachusetts’ 11 electoral votes in 2020. Joe Biden would have been allotted 17.632 of Texas’ 38. Under this plan, Hillary Clinton would have won the 2016 election.
The Senate was overwhelmingly in favor of the Lodge-Gossett amendment, passing it 64-27, but it failed in the House of Representatives.
As for why it — along with hundreds of other proposed amendments — ultimately came up short?
“It’s so hard to amend the Constitution," Foley said. "It’s just very, very hard.”
But it’s not impossible. And if you’re inclined to think that amending the Constitution is a drastic measure, consider that it has been 28 years since we’ve last done so — the most recent addition was the 27th Amendment, ratified in 1992. And we have gone more than 28 years without changing the Constitution only twice in our nation’s history. There was a 61-year gap between the ratification of the 12th and 13th amendments (1804-1865), and 43 years passed between the ratification of the 15th and 16th, amendments (1870-1913).