Electoral College: The people who ultimately pick the US president

 Electors meet to cast their electoral college votes

The US presidential election was five weeks ago, but the votes that officially anoint the next president are just about to be cast.

When Americans go to the polls in presidential elections, they are not directly voting for president. They are actually voting for a group of 538 "electors" that make up the Electoral College.

Electors cast their vote on Monday 14 December, after all 50 states and the District of Columbia have certified their election results.

We'll introduce to some of these electors in a moment - two ordinary Americans and another who everyone knows - but first, let's remind you how this all works.

Who can be an elector?

The US Constitution only states that electors cannot be members of Congress or others who currently hold federal office. So they can be:

  • Retired politicians - former president Bill Clinton cast an electoral vote for his wife Hillary in 2016.
  • State and local elected officials - New York governor Andrew Cuomo was a Democratic elector in 2016
  • Grassroots activists, lobbyists or other figures from a state - we have two examples below
  • Personal or professional connection to candidate - Donald Trump Jr was an elector for his father last time

How are electors chosen?
Each political party with a candidate on the presidential ballot nominates or votes on its own slate of electors in the months prior to election day. States have their own rules for choosing electors.

Roughly in line with the size of its population, each state gets as many electors as it has lawmakers in the US Congress (representatives in the House and Senate).

Once we know who won a state's popular vote, we know which party will appoint the electors for that state.

Electors are like rubber stamps that formalise how their state voted, so they are usually loyal supporters of their party.

What role do electors play?
Electors have already pledged their support for a certain candidate, so they almost always vote as pledged.

This changed in 2016, when a historic number of so-called "faithless electors" - seven in total - voted for candidates other than those they had pledged to support (five turned against Clinton, two against Trump). It was the first election since 1948 to feature more than one faithless elector.

States have since looked to strengthen their rules against faithless electors, pushing laws to remove them and have their votes redacted if they do not vote as pledged, a move backed by the US Supreme Court.

What is happening in 2020?
With the backing of several high-profile supporters, President Trump has called on Republican state legislatures in states he lost to throw out their popular vote results and appoint their own set of electors. Election law experts are sceptical that this is possible and Republican state leaders have pushed back against this suggestion.

Trump's latest legal longshot - could it work?
A successful presidential candidate must get at least 270 out of the 538 votes that make up the electoral college.

If electors vote based on the certified results of their states, they will give Joe Biden 306 votes and Donald Trump 232, thus officially handing the presidency to Mr Biden.

'I'm an elector in New York'
By far the most famous elector this year is Hillary Clinton.

The former secretary of state and first lady lost the 2016 presidential election to Mr Trump, but she gets the last laugh as an elector this year from her adopted home state of New York.

In announcing that she was an elector, Mrs Clinton said it would be "pretty exciting" to cast her vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice-president, respectively.

Mrs Clinton has previously called for the abolition of the Electoral College, arguing presidents should instead be selected by popular vote. In 2016, she was defeated in the Electoral College despite winning nearly three million more votes than Mr Trump.

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