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Dr. Robert Alexander is a professor of political science and chair of the Department of History, Politics and Justice at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of the book “Presidential Electors and the Electoral College: An Examination of Lobbying, Wavering Electors, and Campaigns for Faithless Votes.” We asked him to explain what happens next in the presidential election process.
President Obama won the popular vote and the Electoral College on Tuesday night. What happens now?
First the vote has to be certified by the Ohio Secretary of State, which must be done by December 11. In order to get the full count of all of Ohio’s votes, the provisional ballots must also be counted. Those are not even opened and looked at until November 17. So while the voting is over, the election process continues. And of course, the important date is December 17, when the Electoral College casts their ballots for the president and vice-president, which is what actually elects them.
So, voters didn’t vote for the president, they voted for people who promise to vote for a candidate for president?
That’s right. We voted to authorize party representatives (electors) to vote on behalf of the majority of the population of the state. In Ohio, that translates to votes for 18 individuals, the number of Ohio’s electoral votes. Since Obama won the Ohio popular vote, the Democratic slate of 18 electors will cast ballots for Barack Obama and Joe Biden for president and vice-president on December 17. Had Romney won, a different slate of electors —18 Republicans— would have had that opportunity. The same is true for all political parties recognized by the State of Ohio — Libertarians, Greens, etc. Had a candidate from any of those parties won the popular vote in Ohio, those electors would be the ones voting on the 17th.
Is it possible for an elector to switch his or her vote?
That is a very interesting question, and one that is on the minds of most people once they realize that electors actually select the President of the United States. My students and I have investigated presidential electors from the 2000, 2004 and 2008 presidential elections and have discovered that there is much more potential for so-called “faithless electors” than previously thought. We have discovered extensive lobbying campaigns to get electors to switch votes and many electors actually consider doing so. Few electors follow through with the deed though.
But before anyone gets alarmed, you must first realize who comprises the Electoral College. These people almost always hold positions within their party and are deeply committed to it. They are either elected or appointed, so they are a proven commodity. By and large electors are fiercely loyal to their party, and would never change their vote, certainly not to the other party. The instances in history where voters have either directly changed their vote, or conspired to do so, have involved voting for a different candidate within their party. In 2004, an elector in Minnesota voted for John Edwards twice even though John Kerry was the Democratic candidate. Evidence points to a conspiracy of sorts in 1960 when a number of electors were not comfortable with John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon and planned to vote for Senator Harry Byrd. While some electors liked the idea of a third alternative, only one elector ultimately voted for Byrd.*
How confident are you that Tuesday’s results hold up?
I am very confident that Barack Obama will be inaugurated on January 23, 2012. While there is always the potential for faithless electors, the results of this election are just too far in Obama’s favor. Even without Florida, Obama is over the 270-vote threshold by 33 Electoral College votes. If he wins Florida, he’ll be over the threshold by 62 electoral votes. There is just no historical precedent for that many faithless electors, not by a long shot. If this were a close election, say four or five electoral votes apart, I think we would be in for a very interesting six weeks. But the way it stands now, President Obama should have no worries about last ditch lobbying efforts aimed to encourage faithless voting that would undo Tuesday’s outcome.
*Sen. Harry Byrd ultimately received 15 electoral votes in the 1960 election though he was not on the ballot. However, the other 14 votes were not the result of faithless voting, but rather deliberate action by Mississippi and Alabama to elect non-affiliated electors.