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Commentary: The Electoral College


You may have heard of the Electoral College.  If certain unlikely but theoretically possible election scenarios play out on November 3, then in the near future you will hear more about the Electoral College than the law should allow.

You and I do not elect the president, as you know.  The Founding Fathers did not trust farmers, shopkeepers and peasants like you and me so they concocted an independent body that could vote for a member of America’s natural aristocracy, even if – especially if – you and I preferred someone more common.  Five times total, and twice in the last five elections, most recently in 2016, this independent body has elected a president who did not get the most popular votes.

We actually vote for Electors, who convene in December in their state capitals to cast their state’s Electoral Votes for president.  To win, a candidate must receive a majority of the 538 votes. 

If the candidate with the most Electoral Votes does not get the requisite 270 for the majority, then the U.S. House of Representatives elects the president.  And here’s the interesting part: the House would vote by state delegation, so dinky Delaware and colossal California each would get one vote.

Currently Republicans control 26 congressional state delegations, so presumably Trump would be reelected.  That could change after November 3.  Because the Constitution requires a majority of states to elect, Democrats are focusing their efforts on flipping states like Alaska and Montana, both of which now have one Republican congressman, and Pennsylvania and Michigan, whose delegations are essentially tied.

For vice president, if there’s no majority, then the Senate votes.  Right now Republicans have a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, and if they kept their majority, Pence would be reelected vice president – each senator has one vote.  But many polls are indicating a Democratic takeover of the Senate, which would mean that Kamala Harris would become Trump’s vice president.

The 2000 election was decided by the Supreme Court only a few days before the formal December Electoral College vote.  In 2020 several scenarios, all of them highly unlikely to be sure, present us with a no-decision outcome on Inauguration Day, January 20.   

And if there is no decision by January 20, Trump and Pence leave office at noon that day.  And the next person in the constitutional line of succession becomes temporary president.  That would be the Speaker of the House.  Welcome to the Oval Office, President Pelosi. 

And then the rest of section three of the Twentieth Amendment would kick in.  You should check it out.  It is, uh, vague.

President Trump has sent unmistakable signals that he will contest the election unless he wins, and maybe even if he wins, just to increase the chaos.  Pick a cliché, starting with hang onto your hat.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and regualar commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.