WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — Saturday’s election verdict isn’t the last step in selecting an American president. Under a system that’s been tweaked over two centuries, there is still a weeks-long timeline during which the 538-member Electoral College picks the president.
When American citizens vote for a presidential candidate, they really are voting for electors in their state. Those electors in most cases are committed to support the voters’ candidate of choice. The number of electors is equal to the number of electoral votes held by each state.
State laws vary on how electors are selected but, generally, a slate of electors for each party’s candidate is chosen at state party conventions or by a vote of a party’s central committee.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration:
“There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their States. Some states, however, require electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories—electors bound by State law and those bound by pledges to political parties.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has said the Constitution does not require electors to be free to act as they choose, which means political parties can extract pledges from electors. In some states, a “faithless elector” could be subject to fines or be disqualified for casting an invalid vote.
Several electors were disqualified or replaced in 2016 for failing to vote as pledged. Throughout history, 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged.
A look at the key dates:
After Election Day, states count and certify the results of the popular vote. When completed, each governor is required by law to prepare “as soon as practicable” documents known as “Certificates of Ascertainment” of the vote.
The certificates list the electors’ names and the number of votes cast for the winner and loser. The certificate, carrying the seal of each state, is sent to the archivist of the United States.
Dec. 8 is the deadline for resolving election disputes at the state level. All state recounts and court contests over presidential election results are to be completed by this date.
Dec. 14: Electors vote by paper ballot in their respective states and the District of Columbia. Thirty-three states and D.C. have laws or party regulations requiring electors to vote the same way the popular vote goes in the state, and in some states, electors can even be replaced or subjected to penalties, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The votes for president and vice president are counted and the electors sign six “Certificates of the Vote.” The certificates, along with other official papers, are sent by registered mail to various officials, including the president of the Senate.
Dec. 23: The certificates must be delivered to the designated officials. If they are not delivered, the law provides alternative avenues for getting the results to Washington.
Jan. 6, 2021: The House and Senate hold a joint session to count the electoral votes. If one ticket has received 270 or more electoral votes, the president of the Senate, currently Vice President Mike Pence, announces the results.
Members of Congress may object to returns from any state as they are announced. Objections must be made in writing by at least one member of the House and one in the Senate. If the objection meets certain requirements, each chamber meets separately to debate the objection for a maximum of two hours.
Afterward, each chamber votes to accept or reject the objection. Back in joint session, the results of the respective votes are announced. Any objection to a state’s electoral vote has to be approved by both houses in order for any contested votes to be excluded.
If neither presidential candidate wins at least 270 electoral votes, the House decides the election, based on the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. If required, the House would elect the president. Each state delegation has one vote and it takes 26 votes to win.
Jan. 20: The president-elect is sworn into office on Inauguration Day.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.