President Obama hasn’t officially secured a second term in the White House. Technically, that won’t happen until the electoral college casts its ballots Monday — presumably in favor of the winner for each state.
Even then, Congress has to formally declare Obama the victor after counting the electoral votes on Jan. 6.
Such is the nature of an often poorly understood — and some argue arcane — system for electing the U.S. president. Essentially, Nov. 6 marked the beginning, not the end, of the process for this cycle.
No one is expecting anything but a routine process Monday for Obama, who decisively won the popular vote last month, earning 332 pledged electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206.
There have been some electoral defectors in the past, but they’ve been rare.
“Those instances are very isolated,” said Miriam Vincent, an attorney for the Office of the Federal Register, which records and archives the electoral votes. “That’s not to say it won’t happen this year, but it’s unlikely, based on history.”
There were those who predicted a tighter finish on Nov. 6, and some news media speculated on the possibility of some version of election year 2000, the last time the electoral college took center stage. President George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the electoral college after a historic — and controversial — Supreme Court decision.
The Constitution provides little in the way of mandating how the electoral college should work. It simply determines that each state has one elector for each of its senators and representatives, meaning no state has fewer than three votes.
Federal law requires state electors to meet in their respective state capitals every four years to cast their votes for president and vice president on the Monday after the second Wednesday of December. Otherwise, states largely set their own rules. In most states, an equal number of electors pledge themselves to each candidate, and the popular vote dictates which team of electors casts its votes.
But not all states require their electors to vote according to their initial pledges. And sometimes, electoral voters go their own way.
President Gerald Ford won Washington state in 1976, but Republican elector Mike Padden spent his vote on Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t even the GOP nominee that year.
In 2000, Democratic elector Barbara Lett-Simmons of the District of Columbia cast a blank ballot to protest the lack of congressional representation for the capital. (D.C. residents had no say in presidential elections before the 23rd Amendment, which granted the city three electoral votes, starting in 1964.)
Nine electors are known to have defected from their pledges since 1948. Some states have passed laws subjecting such “faithless electors” to fines.
The nation’s founders considered giving Congress the authority to elect the president, but they decided that option would make the selection dependent upon legislative politics — thus defying the notion of checks and balances. Still, the founders feared the type of absolute democracy that led to the Reign of Terror in France. As a compromise, they settled on the electoral college, which allows the states to pick the president.
“They didn’t want mass hysteria or mob rule,” Vincent said. “The electoral college was set up with the idea that electors would not be influenced by irrelevancies or propaganda.”
The electoral college was also supposed to level the playing field for states with smaller populations, providing them with greater say in presidential elections.
And as the country was reminded in 2000, a candidate doesn’t have to win the popular vote to win. In addition to Bush, three others made it to the White House without the popular vote: John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in 1824; Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel J. Tilden in 1876; and Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888.
The nonprofit group National Popular Vote Inc. has convinced eight states and the District of Columbia to sign an interstate compact that would undermine the electoral college and prevent future second-place finishers from becoming president.
The agreement, which the group first proposed in 2006, requires electors to cast their votes for the winner of the popular vote regardless of who wins their states, but only if the participating states represent a combined 270 electoral votes. That’s the amount necessary to win a presidential election. So far, the member states make up 132 electoral votes.
“We pick up a state or two every year, and we just work away at it,” said National Popular Vote chairman John Koza. “We think every vote in every state should be relevant in every presidential election.”
Supporters might find an unintended consequence if they achieve their goal: eliminating the chance of repeating awkward moments like the one in 2000.