Electoral College FAQ

Although the form may differ a bit from state to state, the electors do cast ballots of some sort, which they are required to sign. The ballots are then sealed and transmitted from each state’s secretary of state to the president of the Senate (in this case, Al Gore) who, on the following Jan. 6, opens and reads them before both houses of the Congress. The ballots also are sent to the National Archives.

At this point, the candidate for president who wins an absolute majority (270 votes or more), is declared president. Likewise, the vice-presidential candidate with the absolute majority is declared vice president.

At noon on Jan. 20, the duly elected president and vice president are sworn into office.

What If There’s a Tie?

In the event that no candidate obtains an absolute majority, the House of Representatives (as the chamber “closest to the people”) elects the president from among the top three contenders.

The last time this happened was in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland at the polls, 48 percent to 49 percent, but won in the Electoral College. Each state delegation casts only one vote, and an absolute majority of the states is required to elect.

Similarly, if no vice-presidential candidate obtains an absolute majority, then the Senate picks from among the top two contenders for that office.

According to the Office of the Federal Register, there is no rationale behind why the House chooses from the top three candidates for president while the Senate chooses from only the top two candidates for vice president.

(Along with the Constitution itself, this process is codified in a provision in the US Code, Title III, Chapter One.)

Can Electors Support Whomever They Want?

States have tried to outlaw it, but a “faithless elector” can still follow the framers’ wishes for electoral independence rather than heed the wishes of his sponsoring party and the citizens who voted for him.

So far there is no record of anybody trying to influence an elector’s vote — but such lobbying would be hard to prevent.

Party officials have variously fumed at their inability to keep electors in line, and a handful of states have tried to make it illegal. (Wisconsin, for instance, threatens the faithless with a $1,000 fine.) But every faithless vote has been recorded as cast, and no faithless elector seems to have been prosecuted for their actions.

Though there were no faithless electors in 1992 or 1996, seven emerged between 1948 and 1988.

Source: Louis Jacobson of National Journal magazine, Federal Election Commission and the Office of the Federal Register.

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