The way America does presidential elections is unique, and complicated. One of the biggest reasons for this is the Electoral College. Edgar B. Herwick III from GBH's Curiosity Desk has been diving into the way the Electoral College works. He spoke with GBH All Things Considered Host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: It's kind of funny — we've spent all these months talking about voting and how this election was going to be so different, and the thing we're bedeviled by at this particular moment is the structural and historical elements that have been with us forever. First of all, let's start with this date, Dec. 14. That's a big day that's looming. What's happening?

Edgar B. Herwick III: So that is when the Electoral College, the 538 people who actually are the only 538 people who cast votes for president and vice president. We elected them on Election Day. They actually meet on the 14th and will cast their votes for the president and the vice president. Now, they never meet as a body. That is to say, the electoral classes in each state meet on the 14th in their state, usually at the state capital, and cast those votes. Those votes get sent to Congress. Then, at a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, they will be tallied up, and that is when the president and vice president are officially elected.

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Rath: Tell us about these electors. How does one become an elector?

Herwick: Yeah, that's one of those things where I think people generally have a sense of the Electoral College, but I don't know that we have a sense of who these people are. The Constitution says that electors must be chosen, but it leaves it up to the states how to choose those electors. And in turn, what has happened over the years is the states generally outsource this job to the political parties. So in most states, these electors are elected at state party conventions. In a handful of states, including here in Massachusetts, they're elected by the various parties' state committees. So every party that has a candidate on the ballot for president elects a set of electors, and the number of electors is their electoral number. Here in Massachusetts, it's 11.

Typically, they elect party leaders or super-volunteers, or state or local officials. People who hold federal office, it should be noted, are the only people who are not allowed as electors. That's in the Constitution. They can't, but anybody else can. And you do have to run for it. I spoke with Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, who this year is one of Massachusetts' 11 electors. She told me it's actually pretty competitive. There were about 15 to 20 folks who were seriously looking for 11 slots this year. She campaigned for it. She wrote emails, she called the voting members of the party to, sort of, make her case. As for why she ran, she said there were a couple of reasons. For one, she wanted there to be a representative from western Massachusetts and she wanted somebody representing municipal government, and she ticked both of those boxes. But most important to her was the fact that this is the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote here in the United States, after a very long battle. And she said by tradition, if you're going to be an elector, you only do it once. So for her, this was the year.

Rath: We talk a lot about the founders and the Constitution, but we don't seem to have much of an understanding of the election side of things that's reflected in this. So how did they come up with this system? Why did they come up with this system?

Herwick: As you said at the very beginning, this is American history, so it's deeply complicated. I think there are a few things to remember out of the gate. Much of the Constitution, as it was constructed, was a compromise. One of the big issues in making these compromises work is that you had northern states, where slavery had been outlawed, and you had southern states, which had slavery, and you were trying to get a system that would get the states to agree with each other. They were also trying to balance what they would have called Republican principles, which is to say a government by, of and for the people, with Federalist principles — the idea that we were going to have a central government, but it was still a federation of separate states. So this is underpinning all of the stuff in the Constitution, including how we elected the president. Election by popular vote, that was discussed. One of the big issues — and by the way, we should keep in mind that at the time, the only people who could vote were land-owning white men — one of the issues here was the slave states. They weren't happy, because the population of the north and south was roughly equal, except for in the south, many of those people were slaves. They, of course, wouldn't be voting. So there were fears from the south that if you did anything by popular vote, they'd be dominated.

You also had this thing where they came up with the numbers for Congress, which is based on population, and that is the basis for the number of electoral votes you get. And of course they had the famed Three-Fifths Compromise between the northern and southern states to get that worked out, wherein you had basically all of these slaves in the south only counting three-fifths towards the population, but they had absolutely no voice. So you had these southern states with outsized power based on the fact that they owned slaves, and those slaves had no voice in the power that they were essentially giving these southern states.

I spoke with Edward Foley, a scholar who runs the election law program at Ohio State University. He said a few things. First of all, the system doesn't really even work as they designed it. Whether you like the system or not, it's actually not working how they designed it. They had their first system, which went totally belly-up after George Washington left office. He said they had initially hoped there would be no permanent political parties in the U.S. and that you could have a consensus choice for president. George Washington was that. But after George Washington left, there was no more consensus, and you had these two political parties emerge, and you had a really ugly election in 1800. So they reworked the Electoral College with the Twelfth Amendment. That's basically what we have today. Foley said they basically felt that if we're going to have two parties, we should at least make sure that the majority party wins the day in presidential elections. "The Electoral College may not be the best way to achieve majority rule, but that's what they were trying to accomplish," said Foley. "They thought they could create a system where they were obligated to get a majority of electoral votes by winning majorities at the level of the states."

The important word here for him is the word "majority." He made the point to me that it's totally underappreciated that while we think we have a two-party system, we don't. When you go to vote for president, there's almost always multiple candidates on the ballot. And so Foley said what happened is states decided that they were going to abandon this idea that you had to get a majority, and they said a plurality is good enough. So what Foley says is that what you often have happen is, you have a candidate who gets less than a majority, but a plurality. So, in essence, more people vote against that person than vote for them, but then they still get every electoral vote in the state. He points out two examples. In 2016, Trump got about 100 electoral votes from states where he didn't achieve a majority, so more people voted against him than for him. Bill Clinton won his first election without a majority in any state except for Arkansas and Washington, D.C. And so Foley said the real issue is that we've abandoned this idea of majority. So whether you like the Electoral College or not, you're not having actual majority voting.