Electoral College to meet Monday
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Every four years, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, members of the Electoral College assemble in their state capitals. There are 538 of them, and this year, a majority would choose the next president of the United States on Monday.
The Electoral College was created by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between those who wanted the people to elect the president directly, and those who wanted Congress to choose the nation's next leader.
The number of each state's electors correlates to the number in a state's congressional delegation: An elector for each of the two senators and one for each of a state's delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives, depending on the population.
On Election Day, voters are actually choosing slates of electors representing each candidate, and the candidate who wins the popular vote gets that state's electoral votes.
But the electoral votes don't always parallel the popular vote. As we now know, Democratic Vice President Al Gore got more popular votes nationwide than President-elect George W. Bush, but fewer electors.
In 24 states, the electors are not even bound by law to support the candidate selected by the voters. Throughout U.S. history, there have been numerous cases of so-called "faithless electors," who vote against their state's winner. It first occurred in 1796; the most recent was 1988.
One faithless elector, Republican Lloyd Bailey, a doctor from North Carolina, caused a near-scandal when he voted for George Wallace instead of Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election.
Bailey, a member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, said he began to have doubts about Nixon's chances and felt he was doing his "duty" to cast his vote for Wallace.
"I was not pledged to a soul," Bailey said. "The Constitution gives an elector the right to vote for the person he judges to be best to run the country."
When it came time for Congress to count electoral votes, some members wanted to void Bailey's ballot. The House and Senate even went into special sessions to debate the Constitution and what to do about what Bailey had done. Ultimately, his electoral vote was counted, but North Carolina passed a law imposing fines on future faithless electors and voiding their vote.
Political scientist Judith Best says any elector who breaks ranks creates a bad precedent. "It may be that the law allows it, but the law allows many reprehensible things," she said.
This year, theoretically, it would only take three faithless electors nationwide to change the result of the November 7 election.
But after the protracted presidential election, it would be highly unusual to have an elector pledged to Bush switch his vote.
"I don't think with everything we've gone through the past five weeks there is a possibility, a realistic possibility of a faithless elector," said election lawyer Jan Baran,
After Monday's balloting, Congress will officially receive the result in January 2001, in a ceremony usually so routine it is virtually ignored. It will be anything but routine this year, as several lawmakers have already announced they will introduce legislation overhauling the election system, and there is widespread discussion about eliminating the Electoral College.
But that would take a constitutional amendment, which is exceedingly difficult to pass. It seems the same Founding Fathers, rightly or wrongly, did not trust their countrymen to wisely decide in the passions of the moment.