Since it only happens once every four years, you may need a refresher on what actually happens on the day that the electoral college meets to vote for the US president. Fortunately for both you and me, Jan Wolfe at Reuters has put this handy reminder together.
The winner of the presidential election is determined not by the popular vote – in which Joe Biden leads by over 7 million – but through the system of the electoral college, which is part of the US Constitution. It allots the so-called “electoral votes” to the states and the District of Columbia based on their congressional representation.
Before the election, state-level leaders of the two major parties selected people to serve as “electors”. Technically, during the election, Americans are casting their votes for those slates of electors, not the candidates themselves. Those individuals are typically party loyalists who have pledged to support the candidate who got the most votes in their state.
Much of the legal activity disputing the election results was based around the Trump team trying to get states to appoint Republican electors who would support him, regardless of the outcome of the popular vote.
There are 538 electoral votes, meaning 270 are needed to win the election. Joe Biden is slated to receive 306.
Most electors are not household names, but this year do include some notable faces, including Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former candidate for governor in that state who has been widely credited with playing an integral role in flipping it blue.
Electors meet at a time and place selected by their state’s legislature. Nevada is meeting virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Most states will be livestreaming the ceremonies.
Electors will sign certificates showing their votes, which are sent to government officials including vice [resident Mike Pence. Those certificates are paired with ones signed by governors showing the popular vote tallies, which have already been certified by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Electoral votes will be officially tallied by a newly seated Congress on 6 January, in a special joint session that Pence will preside over. At that point, the election is officially decided. Biden will be sworn in as president during an inauguration ceremony at noon on 20 January, a time which is set by the constitution.
Occasionally electors can go rogue, and become “faithless electors”, who don’t vote for who they are supposed to. In 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other than their state*s popular vote winner, which was an unusually high number.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control this. Some provide a financial penalty for a rogue vote, while others call for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced. It would be nearly impossible for faithless electors to hand a last-minute victory to Trump – he would need 38 electors to defect.
There’s also a theoretical – albeit unlikely – possibility that Congress could refuse to accept the result. A law called the Electoral Count Act allows individual members of the House and Senate to challenge the results during the 6 January special session, though it is a rarely used procedure.
Any objection to a state’s results must be backed by at least one House member and one senator. The two chambers would then separate to debate the objections before voting on whether to reject the state’s results.
An objection, though, must pass in both chambers by a simple majority. Democrats control the House, meaning a last ditch attempt to thwart Biden’s victory would not pass. Nevertheless Republicans are yet to rule it out. 126 Republicans in the House – almost two-thirds of the party’s conference – backed the Texas attempt to overthrow the election in the supreme court, so it is possible we will see yet another attempt by Republicans to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.