The 'real' presidential vote: Electoral college votes on Monday

Pete Williams
Protesters demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump outside Independence Hall November 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Mark Makela | Getty Images

In a typical election year, the mid-December meeting of the electoral college interests only political junkies and civics teachers.

Not this time.

As the electors prepare to vote Monday, many say they have been besieged by phone calls and e-mails. One already resigned. Another said he won't vote as his state did. And electors in three states went to court seeking authority to vote as they please.

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Hillary Clinton's victory in the popular — but not the electoral — vote and uncertainty about Donald Trump have generated unusual interest in an event that is usually a political footnote.

Under the Constitution and federal law, the real presidential election takes place this year on Dec. 19, when presidential electors meet in the 50 state capitols and Washington, DC.

The electors are hardly household names. As Arizonans went to the polls Nov. 8, 49 percent of them may have thought they were voting for Donald Trump and Mike Pence, but they actually elected Bruce Ash, Walter Begay, and 10 other people.

The votes cast by Ash and 537 others chosen as presidential electors will be counted Jan. 6, 2017, during a joint session of Congress, and only then will the winner be officially declared. It takes 270 votes to win because the 12th Amendment requires a candidate to get a majority.

As the president of the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden will preside over the joint session and announce the results.

It sometimes happens that a vice president ends up announcing his own defeat. It happened to Richard Nixon in 1960, reading the votes for John F. Kennedy, and most recently to Al Gore in 2000, declaring the votes for George W. Bush.

This year, members of a group calling itself The Electors Trust, including Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, say they've been contacted by dozens of electors seeking legal advice.

Many are asking, must they vote as their states did?

A total of 29 states have laws that bind the electors, requiring them to cast their votes for whichever candidate won that state's popular vote. But the laws are weak, providing only nominal penalties.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that states do not violate the Constitution when they require electors to pledge that they will abide by the popular vote. But the justices have never said whether it is constitutional to enforce those pledges.

Courts in Colorado and Washington state have rejected pleas from electors to be released from requirements to vote as their states did, although the electors in Colorado appealed the lower court ruling, according to The Associated Press. The state Supreme Court will have until Monday at noon, when electors cast their ballots, to decide.

In California, a federal judge scheduled a hearing for Friday morning on a similar request from an elector, Vinzenz Koller, who said he cannot vote for Hillary Clinton.

Elsewhere, Christopher Suprun, a Texas paramedic, said he will not vote for the candidate who won his state's election. "Donald Trump lacks the foreign policy experience and demeanor needed to be commander in chief," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

Another Republican elector from Texas, Art Sisneros, resigned in late November. A vote for Trump "would bring dishonor to God," he said.

Eighteen actors and other artists, including Martin Sheen and Debra Messing, urged Republican electors in a video that went viral to "go down in the books as an American hero" and vote for anyone other than Trump.

In a letter to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, 68 presidential electors from 17 states asked for a briefing on why the U.S. believes Russia was behind cyberattacks intended to influence the election.

However the intelligence community said it will not discuss the Russian hacks until a review ordered by President Obama is completed in January.

While the electors are generating an usual amount of attention, it is unlikely to have much effect. Republican officials say party lawyers have been in contact with the 306 Republican electors and believe only a few may vote for someone other than Donald Trump.

A survey by the AP reached a similar result. After interviewing 330 of the 538 electors, the AP found "widespread Democratic aggravation with the electoral process but little expectation that the hustle of anti-Trump maneuvering can derail him."