Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
United States President Donald Trump said on November 26 that he would leave the White House if the Electoral College formalised President-elect Joe Biden’s election win – still insisting that such a decision would be a “mistake”.
Trump’s latest remarks fell short of conceding defeat to his rival from the Democratic Party as he spent his Thanksgiving continuing to claim that “massive fraud” had led to his election defeat.
“Certainly I will. But you know that," Trump said when asked if he would vacate the White House, allowing a peaceful transition of power in January.
Taking questions from reporters for the first time since his election loss, Trump said insisted that “a lot of things" would happen between now and then that might alter the results. “This has a long way to go,” Trump said, without any elaboration.
What is an Electoral College?
Under the American political system, the president is not directly elected by the people but by the Electoral College — a constitutional group of 538 members. This group is formed every four years to elect the president and the vice-president.
Each state legislature determines the manner in which they want to choose their electors. Other than Maine and Nebraska, states require electors to pledge all votes for that state's winning candidate (by popular vote). For example, under this ‘winner takes all’ method, a candidate who secures the popular vote in California wins all of the state's 55 electoral votes. A candidate needs at least 270 such electoral votes to win the election.
In 2000 and 2016, the candidates with the popular vote nationally (Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, respectively), did not become the president.
Biden won 306 electoral votes as opposed to Trump’s 232 (even though Trump continues to contest results in some states). Members of the Electoral College will cast their ballots on December 14, 2020.
If all goes according to the plan, the US Congress will meet at 1 pm in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, to count the electoral votes and declare a winner.
Can the outcome still change?
Technically, yes. In the Electoral College process, there are some people called the “faithless electors”. They are electors who do not vote for the candidates for US President and Vice President for whom they had pledged to vote. Instead, they vote for another person for one or both offices or simply abstain from voting.
Following Trump’s surprise win in 2016, as many as 10 electors from six states went rogue. Eight defected from former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and two away from Trump.
These ‘faithless electors’ cast their electoral vote for Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, activist Faith Spotted Eagle and three Republicans: John Kasich, Colin Powell and Ron Paul.
According to FairVote, a non-partisan organisation which advocates for electoral changes, out of 23,507 elector votes cast in 58 presidential elections so far, only 90 have turned rogue.
Only once, in 1796, has an elector cast their vote for the political opponent of their pledged candidate.
But these actions had no effect on the outcome of the presidential race. Trump ended up with 304 electoral votes (instead of 306 he had actually secured) versus 227 for Clinton (instead of 232 she had actually secured).
Thus, dozens of electors would have to defect for the outcome to change.
Most states have laws that make it binding for electors to vote for their pledged candidate. As many as 15 states impose a penalty for defections, including cancelling the vote. In New Mexico, a faithless elector faces up to 18 months in jail.
Plus, the US Supreme Court ruled in July that it was legal to require electors to pledge support to a particular candidate. This makes a change in outcome highly unlikely.