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Citizens in the US don't actually elect the president - it's more complicated than that

The Founding Fathers of the US were apprehensive about the power of the unchecked popular vote.

Image: AP Photo

IT’S AN INSTITUTION as old as the nation itself, but the Electoral College remains an enigma to many Americans and to the rest of the world.

The Founding Fathers of the United States, apprehensive about the unchecked power of the popular vote, added the extra step to the process of choosing a president.

This was the Electoral College, and it makes the process of electing a president in the US more complicated than you might think.

So let’s take a look at the ins and outs of the Electoral College and how its role could be even more scrutinised this year:

Who are the electors?

Their names often aren’t published on ballots, but voters are technically picking a number of party electors – and not just the individual candidate – when they cast their votes.

Each state has as many members of the Electoral College as the number of its US House and Senate members combined. The District of Columbia (Washington DC) has three electors, which brings the national total to 538.

It will usually be party leaders, elected officials and activists who are chosen to be electors.

Each state has different timelines for elector selection, but it generally happens at least a few months before a general election, often as part of state party conventions.

Campagin 2016 Clinton Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton looks out into the audience as she speaks last week. Source: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

How does it work?

As election results come in, networks and race callers compile electoral vote totals for candidates. Once someone has won a majority of 270 electoral votes, the US theoretically has a president.

But this is not confirmed yet.

Instead of the presidential candidate being confirmed there and then, state officials will certify vote totals in the days after an election.

It is weeks after this process that electors finally cast their votes, when they meet in their respective capital cities. Electors vote on two ballots, one for president and one for vice president.

About a month later, before a joint session of Congress, the current vice president opens the votes from each state and officially declares the next president.

In the unlikely event that no candidate gets a majority, there’s a “contingent election”, under which the US House determines the winner, with each state delegation getting one vote.

The US Senate selects the vice president, with each senator getting a single vote.

Campaign 2016 Trump Source: Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images

According to House archives, only two presidential elections, in 1800 and 1824, have been decided this way.

Winner-takes-all vs district systems

The District of Columbia and 48 states operate on a “winner-takes-all” system, meaning that all of that state’s electoral votes are awarded to the group that won the popular vote.

The electors formally gather at a later date to officially cast their votes for president.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only Maine and Nebraska use a district system.

In this system, the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district receives one electoral vote, and the remaining two votes are awarded to the candidate with the most votes statewide.

Do they have to stick with the nominee?

Mostly, although not always.

Twenty-one states don’t require their electors to go along with the popular vote.

That includes Georgia, traditionally Republican, where GOP elector Baoky Vu, citing Trump’s “antics and asinine behavior,” said last week that he won’t vote for Trump in the general election.

He also said he might not in good conscience be able to cast his electoral vote for him, opting instead to write someone else in. Hours later, he resigned as an elector.

According to FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates for electoral reform, there have been just over 150 of these so-called “faithless electors”.

Many of those votes were changed because the original candidate died before electors cast their votes. More than 80 were changed either by accident or the elector’s personal interest. A handful abstained from voting altogether.

The 29 states that require faithfulness from their electors can impose a variety of punishments, including fines. According to the United States National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Oklahoma and Washington impose civil penalties of $1,000. In South Carolina, a faithless elector is subject to criminal penalties.

In 2000, Barbara Lett-Simmons, an elector for the District of Columbia, cast a blank ballot for president and vice president in protest of the District’s lack of full voting representation.

According to NCSL, the last time an elector crossed over to back another party’s nominee was 1972, when Virginia Republican elector Roger L MacBride cast his vote for Libertarian candidate John Hospers.

Campaign 2016 Libertarian Current Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. Source: John Duricka/AP/Press Association Images

Will it always be this way?

Bills have been introduced across the US to streamline Electoral College processes, with most proposing a switch to the district system, but none have been successful.

A National Popular Vote Compact has been proposed, meaning that states could eventually bypass the Electoral College, promising to give all their electoral votes to the party that wins the national – rather than state – popular vote.

States with a combined total of at least 270 electoral votes must join the compact before it takes effect. So far, the compact has 136 pledged votes, so there’s a ways to go before any systemic change happens.

Read: Hillary Clinton pulls into lead in race for the White House

Read: Could Donald Trump actually win the US election?

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Associated Press

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