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The Electors Almost Always Align With The Popular Vote. But Sometimes They Don't

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tomorrow, in a state capital near you, a group of citizens will officially choose the next president. Depending on how you look at it, these 538 people have enormous power or none at all. We asked our in-house politics professor and senior editor Ron Elving for a bit of history.

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RON ELVING, BYLINE: We've heard that the Constitution says that the Electoral College is how the president actually gets elected.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Ronald Reagan of the state of California has received, for president of the United States, 489 votes.

ELVING: We assume the electors will vote as the people of their states voted. We've had 57 presidential elections before this one and only nine electors have gone rogue. But this is not the year of the normal. This is 2016.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Donald Trump had 36 more electoral votes than the 270 needed to win, but there are efforts underway to sway 37 of his pledged electors away from casting ballots for him on Monday.

ELVING: That's why in his last news conference of the year on Friday President Obama had to talk about how he felt about the Electoral College.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we have a strong message, if we're speaking to what the American people care about, typically, you know, the popular vote and the Electoral College vote will align.

ELVING: They usually do but not always. The popular vote winner has not gone to the White House four previous times - 1824, 1876, 1888 and the year 2000.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: George W. Bush of the state of Texas has received, for president of the United States, 271 votes. Al Gore of the state of Tennessee has received 266 votes.

ELVING: But Hillary Clinton's winning margin in the popular vote is nearly 3 million votes, almost six times larger than Gore's. That's one argument to sway an elector, but there's another. If you can't vote for Clinton, then how about exercising your own judgment for someone other than Clinton - another Republican perhaps? Could they do that? Well, yes, they could legally do it in 21 states that don't bind their electors to the results in that state. Most states have laws binding their electors to their results by law, but the penalty may only be a fine. Those who like this independent judgment idea are called Hamilton delegates, a reference to Alexander Hamilton, who helped sell the country on the Electoral College more than two centuries ago. It was a safeguard, he said, against the passions of the masses, and it was an alternative to having Congress choose the president. This is Hamilton's pitch.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.

ELVING: But through the years, the Electoral College has not evolved as a separate decision-making body, as Hamilton envisioned. It's grown to be regarded more as a rubber stamp. This year, one Texas elector has said he cannot vote for Trump.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And I'm a Republican elector. I'm going to vote for a Republican. It's just not going to be Donald Trump.

ELVING: But it would take another three dozen like him to deny Trump a majority. And at that point, there would be no one with a majority and the question of the presidency would go to the House of Representatives to be resolved. Few doubt that this House would, at this juncture, elect Trump. But all that is likely moot at this point. The College shows no sign of blocking Donald Trump, and being ensconced in the Constitution as it is, the Electoral College is not going away anytime soon.

Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIBERTY TREE WIND PLAYERS PERFORMANCE OF JOHN REID'S "MARCH OF THE 35TH REGIMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.