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Who Are Electors And How Do They Get Picked?

Another official move in America's sometimes-convoluted presidential election process takes place Monday as the electors of the Electoral College cast their votes.

It's one of the final steps in picking a president, but who are these electors and how do they get selected?

It begins and ends with loyalty — loyalty to state and national parties. That in part is how the candidates are all but guaranteed to have the electors' votes match the ballots cast by regular people in general election voting in each state.

Who are they and who picks them?

There are 538 electors, one for each U.S. senator and U.S. representative, plus three for Washington, D.C., which gets three electoral votes in the presidential election even though it has no voting representation in Congress.

The number of electors has changed through history as the number of elected members of Congress has changed with the country's expansion and population growth.

The establishment and role of the Electoral College is spelled out in Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution. It was modified by the 12th Amendment in 1804 and the 23rdin 1961.

How electors get picked varies by state, but in general state parties file slates of namesfor who the electors will be. They include people with ties to those state parties, like current and former party officials, state lawmakers and party activists. They're selected either at state party conventions or by party central committees. Each presidential candidate gets their own unique list of names on their slates.

Are they bound by the popular votes in those states?

In some places, yes; in others, no. Thirty-two states plus the District of Columbiahave laws requiring electors to vote for the candidate the party has nominated, or they have to sign pledges.

Some states threaten electors with fines or even criminal penaltiesfor going "faithless." In New Mexico, it's considered a fourth-degree felony; in South Carolina, they are subject to criminal action; Oklahoma holds out a fine of $1,000; it's $500 in North Carolina.

Many of these states also will throw out the vote of a rogue elector and replace them with someone who holds the line.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court upheld that laws binding "faithless electors" are constitutional.

So is there a chance that President Trump could overturn the election results through the Electoral College?

Almost certainly not.

While there have been people who stray from the will of the voters before, historically 99% have shown fidelity to the state's popular vote results.

That's largely because of the process that takes place, with state parties selecting them. So there's already a natural vetting process.

How many faithless electors have there been?

Hawaii elector David Mulinix cast a vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Electoral College. He was required by law to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Cathy Bussewitz / AP
Hawaii elector David Mulinix cast a vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Electoral College. He was required by law to vote for Hillary Clinton.

In 2016, seven went against the popular vote in their states. That was the most since 1972 and the first time there were any faithless electors since 2004. Those seven were also more than all the faithless electors combined (four) dating back to 1976.

In the 2016 presidential election between Trump and Hillary Clinton — two candidates who were unpopular — two Texas electors strayed from Trump and selected Ohio Gov. John Kasich and ex-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian star.

Trump should have won 306 electoral votes but wound up with 304 instead.

On the Democratic side, more electors abandoned Clinton. In Hawaii and Washington state, five electors cast ballots for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Faith Spotted Eagle, a Native American activist who was prominent in trying to block the Keystone XL pipeline.

Before then, there was just one faithless elector in 2004, one in 2000, one in 1988 and one in 1976.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.