They will elect a slate of electors instead

A view of the North Portico of the White House, Wednesday June 14, 2017 in Washington D.C. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
A view of the North Portico of the White House, Wednesday June 14, 2017 in Washington D.C. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The US is going to the polls tomorrow (03 Nov.) to elect the next President. The US presidential election is held on Tuesday after the first Monday in the month of November every four years. The presidential election campaign has come to an end, and more than 92 million Americans have availed themselves of the facility to vote early. It is popularly thought in most parts of the world that the presidential election is between the incumbent President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. This perception is both right and wrong at the same time, paradoxical as it may sound.

How the US President is elected has left those in other countries baffled in that it involves a seemingly complex process which they are not familiar with. In the US presidential contest,it is not necessarily the candidate who polls the heighest number of popular votes who becomes the President, In the 2016 presidential election, Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton polled 65,853,625 votes (48.0%) while Donald J Trump received only 62,985,106 votes (45.9%) or Clinton received 2,868,519 votes more than Trump, but failed to make it to the White House. This is what baffles most people outside the US.  

In countries, including Sri Lanka, people vote directly for the presidential candidates in the fray, and the one who polls more than one half of the valid votes becomes the president. In some countries, there are run-offs while in Sri Lanka second and third preferences are counted in case neither candidate polls more than 50% of the total number of valid votes. The process is simple unlike that in the US.

Caucuses, Primaries and National Conventions

Anyone who runs for President in the US should be at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen of the US and a resident of the US for 14 years. Those who are desirous of becoming the President have to first canvass for support within their political parties and be nominated through discussions in what is called Caucuses. Thereafter, the nominees so selected have to face intra-party elections called Primaries, where the part members elected the best candidate to run for President.

(Incidentally, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa tried to introduce the primary election mechanism to select UNP candidates for the local government election, in the early 1991, but his experiment ended in disaster with his party members trading blows and some of them even going to the extent of urinating into the ballot boxes!)

After the primaries are over, the political parties hold their National Conventions to select their candidates formally and these events are complete with pomp and pageantry and even gala dinners and free food and drinks on the streets in most cases. The delegates who attend these Conventions are of two kinds— Pledged and Unpledged or Super-delegates. The Pledged Delegates are bound to vote for a particular candidate and the Super-delgates are not and can back any candidate of their choice.87B15BF6-9687-47C5-90F8-3AD17586DEC7

How to become the President

In the first round of voting, the pledged delegates vote for the candidates they are required to and the Super-delegates cannot vote unless a candidate has enlisted the support of enough pledged candidates to secure nomination. If the presidential candidates cannot be elected in the first round such Conventions are called ‘contested’. A second round of voting is taken at a Contested Convention, and the pledged delegates are free to vote for anyone at this stage. Voting goes on until a candidate is elected.  

The winning candidates announce their running-mates or vice Presidents. Then comes the general election, as the first stage of the presidential election is called; candidates canvass popular support throughout the country and these campaign trails are mega events. Some candidates use buses for this purpose for and cover the length and breadth of the country.

Electoral College

On the day of the general election (the first leg of the process of electing the President), people do not vote directly for the presidential candidates. They vote for a group of party representatives called electors. The President is elected through the Electoral College, which is a process consisting of the selection (or slate or ticket) of electors, their meeting, where they vote for the President and the Vice President and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress. The number of electors in each State is equal to the combined total of the members of Congress and Senators there. The 20th Amendment to the US Constitution enabled Washington D. C. to have representation in the Electoral College. Political parties and independent candidates nominate 538 electors each. (See the graph for the number of electoral votes that states and Washington D. C. have.) Those other than Members of Congress and persons holding offices of “Trust or Profit” under the Constitution can serve as electors.

They are elected at the district level under the first-past-the-post or winner-take-all system.

Electors meet in 51 locations across the US after the election to choose the winner. The candidate who secures 270 votes of electors becomes the President. They meet for this purpose in their respective states on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. Thus, this year, following the US presidential election, the electors will meet on 14 Dec. 2020 to pick the winner. The process does not end there.

Electoral vote results are conveyed to the Congress and other constitutionally designated authorities. They are duly counted thereafter and the winner is announced at a joint session of the Congress on 06 January after the presidential election. This date can be changed provided the Congress so decides through a joint resolution. The results from states can be challenged at the joint Congressional session.

Why 2016 US election so remarkable

At the last US presidential election, in 2016, Donald Trump won the Electoral College with 304 votes as opposed to 227 votes secured by Hillary Clinton while seven electors voted for candidates other than those nominated by their parties. That election saw four rarely occurring Electoral College eventualities, according to

(1) The election of a President and Vice President who received fewer popular votes than their major opponents.

(2) The actions of seven faithless electors, who voted for candidates other than those to whom they were pledged.

(3) The split allocation of electoral votes in Maine, which uses the district system to allocate electors.

(4) Objections to electoral votes at the joint session of Congress to count the votes.

Contingent Elections

There can be situations where an Electoral College can find itself in a deadlock with no candidate receiving the majority of votes. This warrants a Contingent Election, where the House of Representatives elect the President with each state delegation casting one vote for one of the first three contenders to elect the President. The presidential elections in 1800 and 1824 were decided by the House in this manner. In 1876, a situation arose, where three states, Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana gave certificates of election to two candidates thus necessitating the appointment of an ad hoc bipartisan commission of Representatives, Senators and Judges of the Supreme Court to review the ballots; the commission determined that all three certificates of election go to Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, who became the 19th US President by a majority of single electoral vote.  

The creation of the Electoral College and reform bids

The Electoral College was born out a compromise between the delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, where the Founding Fathers could not reach a consensus on how to elect the President. Opinion was sharply divided with one school of thought demanding that the Congress be empowered to elect the President and the other insisting that the President be elected on a democratic popular vote. They finally reached middle ground and the outcome of their compromise was the Electoral College, which has since drawn much criticism.  

Presidential Candidates who secured the highest number of popular votes failed to secure the presidency five times in the US history. This has led to a campaign for abolishing the Electoral College. There have also been quite a few ‘faithless electors’. Therefore, there have been some attempts at various electoral reforms including a proposal for changing the Constitution to introduce the direct popular election, but there have been no changes all these years. The US is averse to departing from traditions where electoral affairs are concerned. After all, the Electoral College was the brainchild of the revered Founding Fathers.


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