How 2016 put pressure on the Electoral College

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North Carolina Electoral College representatives sign the Certificates of Vote after they all cast their ballots for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the State Capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., December 19, 2016.     REUTERS/Jonathan Drake - RTX2VQID

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in this country, President-elect Donald Trump is now one step closer to officially sealing his victory.

But the debate over the value of the Electoral College has intensified this year, in part because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes.

William Brangham has our report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis today, a rare sight for our cameras: members of the Electoral College gathering to cast their official votes for president and vice president.

WOMAN: I vote today for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: After a simple roll call vote, Maryland’s 10 electors have spoken and certified the official results for the state. Hillary Clinton swept Maryland on Election Day, and, as expected, she received all 10 electoral votes.

In just 40 minutes, more than a year of presidential campaigning comes to an end. But it’s not just here in Maryland. Across the country today, electors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia gathered to do the same, from Pennsylvania and Virginia to Colorado and Michigan.

Even Bill Clinton is an elector in New York. Now, in most years, no one pays much attention to this process. The Electoral College vote is something of an afterthought. But this time, electors have been under a lot of pressure. Some even received hate mail and death threats because some voters wanted them to change their votes, and deny Donald Trump the presidency.

We all know the White House hinges on that magical 270 number. That’s the simple majority of 538 electoral votes. It’s a number Mr. Trump clearly reached on election night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Associated Press is calling Wisconsin, so that puts him over the top. Donald Trump is the next president of the United States.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s the theory, at least, because most states have laws that bind electors to cast their vote according to the popular vote in their state. If they don’t, they can be replaced or punished with a fine. But some states do allow for what’s called faithless electors, and they can vote for whomever they want, regardless of how their state voted on Election Day.

Now, these faithless electors are pretty rare. There have only been about 160 in history, and they have never flipped the outcome of an election. To have upended Trump’s victory this year, it would have taken 37 electors to change their votes, and that didn’t happen.

There were a handful of would-be defectors this year, including ones in Georgia and Texas. They chose to resign as electors, rather than vote for Mr. Trump. They were replaced today by Trump supporters.

But only one Republican had come out publicly as faithless elector, Chris Suprun from Texas.

CHRIS SUPRUN, Texas Elector: I am not voting for Donald Trump because I don’t think he’s the right man for the job.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who briefly ran for president as a Democrat this year, argues electors have a moral obligation to vote their conscience.

LAWRENCE LESSIG, Former Presidential Candidate: Our goal is to let the electors exercise their judgment. The Electoral College was made for this election, precisely.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, says these efforts are just sour grapes.

REINCE PRIEBUS, Republican National Committee Chairman: It’s about Democrats that can’t accept the outcome of the election. It’s about delegitimizing the American system.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As they have done in elections past, the states will now send their vote totals to Washington, D.C., where Congress will tally them in a joint session next month and officially announce the election results.

DICK CHENEY, Former Vice President of the United States: Barack Obama of the state of Illinois has received for president of the United States 365 votes.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as we reported earlier, one additional Republican elector in Texas voted against Donald Trump, bringing his number of defectors to two.

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