President Obama hasn’t officially secured a second term in the White House. Technically, that won’t happen until the electoral college casts its ballots Monday — presumably in favor of the winner for each state. Even then, Congress has to formally declare Obama the victor after counting the electoral votes on Jan. 6. Such is the nature of an often poorly understood — and some argue arcane — system for electing the U.S. president. Essentially, Nov. 6 marked the beginning, not the end, of the process for this cycle. No one is expecting anything but a routine process Monday for Obama, who decisively won the popular vote last month, earning 332 pledged electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206. There have been some electoral defectors in the past, but they’ve been rare.
“Those instances are very isolated,” said Miriam Vincent, an attorney for the Office of the Federal Register, which records and archives the electoral votes. “That’s not to say it won’t happen this year, but it’s unlikely, based on history.”
There were those who predicted a tighter finish on Nov. 6, and some news media speculated on the possibility of some version of election year 2000, the last time the electoral college took center stage. President George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the electoral college after a historic — and controversial — Supreme Court decision.
The Constitution provides little in the way of mandating how the electoral college should work. It simply determines that each state has one elector for each of its senators and representatives, meaning no state has fewer than three votes.
Federal law requires state electors to meet in their respective state capitals every four years to cast their votes for president and vice president on the Monday after the second Wednesday of December. Otherwise, states largely set their own rules. In most states, an equal number of electors pledge themselves to each candidate, and the popular vote dictates which team of electors casts its votes.