A majority of Americans voted to reelect President Barack Obama in the November 6 national election. But his return to the White House won’t become official until December 17, when the 538 members of the U.S. Electoral College cast their votes.
Going into the presidential election, each state plus Washington, D.C., has a list of people who will vote as “electors.” The number in each state ranges from three to 55 and is based largely on population size.
With a couple of exceptions, when a candidate wins the majority of the popular vote in a given state, he or she automatically wins all of that state’s electoral votes. Whoever wins a total of 270 electoral votes wins the election. Barring any surprises, Obama will receive 332 electoral votes to 206 for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher talked to an elector from the eastern state of Maryland to find out what happens on December 17. Kumar Barve, a Democrat, is the majority leader in the state's House of Delegates
RFE/RL: How did you become a member of the Electoral College?
Well, that’s a funny story. I was basically minding my own business and I got a phone call [in October] from the Obama campaign congratulating me that I had been selected to be an Obama elector for the state of Maryland -- one of the 10 electors that Maryland is allocated under the U.S. Constitution.
RFE/RL: So you’ve never done what you’re doing – casting an Electoral College ballot for U.S. president?
It’s a first for me.
RFE/RL: Few Americans really understand what the Electoral College is. How do you explain it to people who ask you about it?
Being an elector is very much a ceremonial position, in a way. Let me say this: The constitution of the United States gives each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia a number of electors that is equal to the number of the members of the House of Representatives and the two senators that they have. So, Maryland has two U.S. senators, as every other state does, and eight members of the House of Representatives.
So Maryland gets 10 people to basically vote on behalf of the 4.6 million people who live in our state. When people go to the polls and vote, really what they’re voting for is a slate of electors for the various candidates. Obama had 10 people, [Mitt] Romney had 10 people, and under Maryland law, whoever wins the vote in Maryland gets all 10 of the electors from that candidate.
Obama carried the state of Maryland, so all 10 of his electors go to vote for him in the Electoral College.
RFE/RL: So let’s get to what happens on December 17. What’s the actual schedule of events?
Here’s what happens: In Maryland, on [December 17], we will all gather in the city of Annapolis, which is the capital of the state of Maryland, and we will basically sign a document affirming the fact that we are voting to elect Barack Obama as the president of the United States.
RFE/RL: Who are your nine fellow electors? Do you know any of them?
I’ve seen the list of names and I recognize some of them – two of them are my colleagues in the legislature. The Obama campaign clearly wanted to have a group of electors who looked like America. In Maryland and throughout the United States, it looks like a very diverse group of people – not just the usual people you would expect to see, but people from all different backgrounds and ethnicities and religions.
RFE/RL: So on December 17, all of you go to Annapolis to sign this document?
You bet. I have to be there at 10 a.m. and apparently it’s quite the event. Our spouses have been invited, so my wife is taking the day off from work and we’re both going to go down there and I’m going to put my signature to a piece of paper saying I’m an Obama elector.
RFE/RL: And then what?
From what I understand, the actual document is couriered to the U.S. Capitol and there is a ceremony where the vice president of the United States presides, and he reads out the votes from the 50 states and [Washington, D.C.].
I don’t think they read out the names of all 538 electors, but it will probably be a scene very similar to the party conventions where someone will stand up and say, “The great state of Maryland offers 10 votes for the next president of the United States, Barack Obama." And I’m sure there’s a lot of pomp and fanfare. I’m actually thinking about going down there just to watch.
RFE/RL: The Electoral College is controversial because many Americans think the president should be elected solely by popular vote, not this indirect, state-apportioned vote. What do you say?
Yeah, I think we should do away with it also, ironically enough. But here’s the thing: It’s very, very difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution. To do it, you need a two-thirds' vote in both the Senate and the House and then you need three-quarters of the state governments to consent. So amending the constitution to get rid of the Electoral College is going to be very difficult.
RFE/RL: When you wake up on December 18, will you still be an elector?
My voting as an elector terminates with my voting for Barack Obama. ... I guess I’m a former elector the minute I sign on the dotted line.