By / Jan 8

On Wednesday, a group of insurrectionists attempted to disrupt the final step of the Electoral College, the counting of the electoral votes by Congress. As Congress reconvened later that night after the Capitol was cleared by law enforcement, the counting was made officially and declared President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris the winners of the 2020 presidential election. 

Here is what you should know about how the Electoral College process is used to determine the presidential election and why it is an important institution for protecting our republican form of democracy.

What is the Electoral College?

We tend to associate the term “college” with higher education. But in this case, the term refers to a meaning that goes back to the 14th century: an organized association of persons invested with certain powers and rights or engaged in some common duty or pursuit. The Electoral College is thus a process rather than a place. Although the term Electoral College is never used in the Constitution (Article 2, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3), the electors that choose the president at each election are traditionally called a College.

The Electoral College process consists of the selection of the electors, the meeting of the electors where they vote for president and vice president, and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.

Where did the Electoral College system come from?

The Electoral College was proposed by James Wilson at the Constitutional Convention as a compromise between those who wanted the Congress to choose the president and those who believed the election should be decided by the state legislatures. The Framers were generally in agreement that giving the people the power to directly elect the president was a terrible idea, but that decision was changed with the 12th Amendment (Amendment XII) to the United States Constitution, which provides the procedure for electing the president and vice president. 

Who decides how many electoral votes each state receives?

Each state receives an electoral vote for each U.S. senator (two per state) plus one for each Congressional representative. Since the number of representatives is based on population, the state’s electoral votes are also based on the number of people who reside within a state. 

Currently, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members, and three who represent Washington, D.C. (for the purposes of the Electoral College, the District of Columbia is treated like a state).

When U.S. citizens went to the polls on Nov. 3, 2020, they were voting on electors who would cast a vote for their preferred candidate (Donald Trump, Joe Biden, etc.) The voters in each individual state thus chose electors to serve in the Electoral College.

How do these electoral votes decide who becomes president?

On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December (which fell on Dec. 14, 2020 for this year), the electors of each state meet in their respective state capitals to cast the official votes for president and vice president. 

The governor for each individual state then verifies the count and issues the Certificates of Ascertainment and the Certificates of Vote. These votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate (the current Vice President, Mike Pence), who will open and read the votes on Jan. 6 in the presence of both houses of Congress. The Certificates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia are opened, presented, and recorded in alphabetical order.

The president of the Senate then announces the results of the vote and calls for any objections. To be recognized, any objections must have been submitted in writing and be signed by at least one member of the House and one senator. If an objection is recognized, the House and Senate withdraw to their respective chambers to consider the merits of any objections, following the process set out in 3 U.S.C. §15. For the objection to be recognized, both chambers must agree to it by a simple majority vote. If they do not both agree, the original electoral votes are counted with no changes.

Even after the insurrectionists attacked the Capitol building, six Republicans in the Senate and 121 Republicans in the House objected to certifying Arizona’s electoral outcome, and seven Senate Republicans and 138 House Republicans objected to certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral outcome. Those objections were overwhelmingly rejected by the other members of Congress. 

After all the votes are recorded and counted, the president of the Senate declares which persons, if any, have been elected president and vice president of the United States. Because of the riot, Vice President Mike Pence was not able to formally announce President-elect Joe Biden as the winner until just after 3:40 a.m. on Thursday. 

The president-elect and vice president-elect take the Oath of Office and will be sworn into office exactly two weeks later, at noon on Jan. 20.

Who are these electors?

Since the political parties choose electors, they tend to be partisan political activists. The Constitution doesn’t have any requirements other than specifications for who cannot be an elector: a representative or senator, a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of “trust or profit,” or anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States.

Do the electors have to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in their state?

No, the elector is free to cast his vote for anyone he or she chooses. In fact, there have been times when electors have voted contrary to the will of the people—and it’s entirely Constitutional. Anyone who votes against their state’s choice is known as a “faithless elector” and essentially ruins any future they might have had with their political party. In the history of the process, only about 156 faithless electors cast their vote for another person other than the candidate they were expected to choose.)

However, states can pass laws against faithless electors. Currently, 33 states plus the District of Columbia require electors to vote for a pledged candidate, though about half (16 plus DC) do not have  any penalty or any mechanism to prevent the deviant vote from counting as cast. Five states have some type of penalty and 14 states provide for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced. The Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of such laws in the 1952 case Ray v. Blair, and the 2020 case, Chiafalo v. Washington

How many electoral votes are needed to win?

A presidential candidate must receive a majority (270 of the 538 eligible) in order to win the election. Joe Biden’s electoral win over Donald Trump was 306-232, the same margin Trump won over Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Could Vice President Pence have rejected the election results?

On Tuesday, Jan. 5—a day before the counting of the electoral votes by Congress—President Trump tweeted, “The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors.” 

It’s unclear why the president made this claim since neither the Constitution nor any other federal law give the vice president such authority. The 12th Amendment merely states that, “The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.” The other relevant law is the Electoral Control Act of 1887, which also does not mention any role for the vice president in resolving electoral disputes.

Vice President Pence issued a letter saying he recognized the limitations of his role. “It is my considered judgment,” wrote Pence, “that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”

Additionally, no state legislature has sought to change their state’s vote counts and no governor has claimed their state’s results were based on fraud or voting irregularities, as Trump has claimed. 

Why does the Electoral College matter?

For much of human history, the dominant legal principle was rex lex—“the king is law.” In the 1600s, though, that view was subverted, mostly by Christian thinkers like Samuel Rutherford, who claimed lex rex—“the law is king.” Since then most Western governments have adopted the principle that the rule of law, rather than the arbitrary diktats of government officials, should govern a nation. 

For 224 years—since John Adams took office in 1797—there has been a peaceful transition of power between presidents of the United States. That record is due, in no small part, to our reliance on the rule of law as applied to the Electoral College. 

While an attempt was made on Wednesday to disrupt and usurp that process, the eventual outcome revealed that the Electoral College remains a robust institution. But it also revealed that Americans—and especially Christians in America—need to be vigilant to protect the rule of law from mob rule.

By / Dec 10

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik and Travis Wussow are both back around the table with Jeff Pickering for a wide ranging policy conversation about the ERLC’s priorities for the Lame Duck Congress and then the Biden Administration.

Then on the second half of the show, China expert Michael Sobolik joins us for a deep dive on Chinese Communist Party politics, history of the U.S. China relationship, and what it means for human rights advocacy today.

This episode is sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of Searching for Christmas by JD Greear. Find out more about this book at thegoodbook.com.

Guest Biography

Michael Sobolik is a Fellow in Indo-Pacific Studies at the American Foriegn Policy Council. His work covers American and Chinese grand strategy, regional economic and security trends, America’s alliance architecture in Asia, and human rights. Michael also serves as editor of AFPC’s monthly newsletter Indo-Pacific Monitor. His analysis has appeared in The Diplomat, The Hill, Jane’s Defence Weekly, The National Interest, National Review, Newsweek, Providence, and RealClearDefense. Prior to joining AFPC, Michael served as a Legislative Assistant to Sen. Ted Cruz from 2014 to 2019 and managed his Indo-Pacific policy portfolio. While in the Senate, Michael drafted legislation on China, Russia, India, Taiwan, North Korea, and Cambodia, as well as strategic systems and missile defense. Michael is a graduate of Texas A&M University, where he also earned his Master of International Affairs degree in American grand strategy and U.S.-China relations at the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Nov 17

Jeff Pickering and Chelsea Patterson Sobolik welcome back ERLC president, Russell Moore, to the podcast to talk about his new book, The Courage To Stand, and what we can learn about truth and tribalism from the 2020 presidential election. The message of Dr. Moore’s newest book is timely for this fearful and anxious year as he helps readers see where Christ-empowered courage comes from, from the way of the cross.

This episode is sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of the advent family devotional, A Better Than Anything Christmas. Find out more about this book at thegoodbook.com.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Nov 6

In this episode, Lindsay also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jordan Wootten with “3 ways Christians can mend the political rural-suburban divide,” Josh Wester with :Why would Christians support religious freedom? Learning from early Christian leaders,” and Marissa Postell with “What should we do with the fear we feel in 2020? Trusting God in the midst of pandemics and politics.” Also in this episode Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss all the details surrounding the 2020 election and the results still coming in. 

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By / Nov 6

The 2020 presidential election is still ongoing and has raised many questions. Here is an explanation of what’s happening.

Why is it taking so long to count the ballots?

The two primary reasons why ballot-counting is taking longer than usual, is because of high voter turnout and the process of counting absentee ballots (i.e., mail-in ballots). 

Voter turnout has been higher than in normal elections, which estimates ranging from roughly 157.1 million to 165.0 million votes cast for president. This is likely to be the highest percentage of voter turnout since 1900, when 73.7% of eligible Americans cast ballots. Vice President Biden has already broken the record for most votes ever cast for a U.S. presidential candidate, beating President Obama’s 2008 tally.

The record number of absentee ballots has also slowed the counting. So far there have been almost twice as many absentee ballots as in person ballots (65.2 million compared to 35.9 million). Some states, such as Pennsylvania, are not allowed by their state laws to count any mail-in ballots until Election Day. 

Because absentee ballots require additional steps to process, such as opening the envelopes and checking the names against voter rolls, they take significantly more time to process. That is why states like Texas and Florida, which were able to process their absentee ballots early and know their projected counts on the night of the election. 

What are each candidate’s paths to victory?

For President Trump to win reelection, he needs to win Pennsylvania and three of the remaining states: Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada. For Vice President Biden to win the election, he needs to win Pennsylvania or two of the remaining states. 

At the time of publication, Biden was leading in all states except for North Carolina. 

What does it mean for media outlets to “call’ a race?

Media outlets create projection models to predict the likely outcomes of a race. Such models are based on criteria like exit polls and past elections and are usually based on a county-by-county breakdown. Some models also consider the relative number of absentee ballots and urban votes (which tend to skew Democrat) compared to election day ballots and rural votes (which tend to skew Republican). For this reason, where the remaining votes are in a state can help projection models determine the likely outcome. For example, if all of the historically Republican parts of a state have counted 100% of the vote but all the historically Democratic parts of a state have counted 0% of the vote, they may call the race for a Democrat losing the state by 1% if the exit polls show the Democratic areas will continue voting for the Democrat by a significant margin.

The two primary projection models are Edison Research’s National Election Pool (which is used by ABC, NBC, CBS, NBC, et al.) and AP VoteCast (which is used by the Associated Press and Fox News). The differing methodologie are why some media outlets project winners in certain states while others do not. The most prominent example from this election is the AP and Fox News calling the state of Arizona for Biden on the night of the election. 

But while such projections help us know who the likely winner will be, the determination of who will be president is based on the official vote counts being certified by the Secretary of State for each individual U.S. state. 

Could a recount change the outcome of an election?

Before the votes are certified, states can allow a recounting of the ballots. Each state has their own laws about when a candidate can request a recount. For example, Wisconsin law only allows for a recount if the margin in the race is within 1% (Georgia has already announced they will be conducting a recount). In many states, a candidate can also request a recount if there is evidence of fraud or significant error. 

Recounts rarely change the vote count by more than a few hundred, and almost never change the outcome of race. For example, in the 2016 presidential contest, Wisconsin conducted a recount after Trump beat Sec. Hillary Clinton by more than 20,000 votes. The recount resulted in Trump gaining an additional 131 votes.

The most famous recount in presidential history was in the 2000 election. George W. Bush was leading Gore by about 2,000 votes on the night of the election. These results were contested, and after a statewide machine recount and partial subsequent hand recounts in some counties, the Supreme Court ordered an end to the process with Bush leading by 537 votes.

Has there been significant voter fraud in this election?

Currently, there has been no evidence that voter fraud has been occurring. 

Trump’s campaign has filed lawsuits in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania. Judges in Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have dismissed the legal challenges.

In only one state—Nevada—have they officially claimed fraud was occurring. Trump tweeted that there was “plenty of proof,” but neither he nor his campaign have offered any proof at all. 

There are numerous reasons why widespread election fraud is difficult, if not impossible, to pull off at the presidential level. Political parties appoint partisan poll watchers to monitor polling places and election offices. For instance, an election office in the Democratic stronghold of Detroit had 134 Republicans, 134 Independents, and 134 Democrats as poll watchers. Extensive research has shown that voter fraud is exceeding rare, that voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and that many instances of alleged fraud are merely mistakes by voters or election administrators.

By / Nov 3

Today is Election Day in the United States. As we cast our votes, may we also remember the importance of prayer. Communing with the Lord reminds us of our ultimate hope and comfort and teaches our hearts to trust in our Father. 

Below is a sample prayer for personal reflection, families, and churches to use:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for hearing our prayers and for caring about your children. We recognize and confess our utter dependence upon you. Scripture teaches us that we ought to pray without ceasing, and on a day when many of us are tempted toward despair or triumph, we ask that you reorient our hearts and our gaze toward you. 

Regardless of the outcome of this election, may we remember that you are on your throne, you are sovereign and in control. The nations may rage, but you remain steadfast. You are our true hope, security, rest, and safety. May we not give way to fear or pride, but instead rest in your presence. You have told us that your kingdom is not of this world. Teach our hearts to trust in you, our King of kings, rather than the rulers of the world. 

As you have instructed us in your Word, we ask for wisdom and guidance for our president, our Congress, governors, state officials, and mayors. We also lift up the newly elected officials around the country. Give them discernment and hearts of services for the people they lead.

Give us a renewed love for you and for our neighbor. After this day is finished, we will still live and work among friends and family with whom we might disagree. We repent and ask for forgiveness for harsh or unkind words we’ve spoken over the past few months, whether on social media or in person. Forgive us for being quick to speak and slow to listen. We ask that the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts would be pleasing in your sight.

May we not get so focused on politics that we overlook the commandment you’ve given us to share the good news of your gospel. We ask that we would be eager laborers in the harvest and boldly proclaim you to a watching and lost world. We ask that we continue to grow in godliness in all areas of our life.

Today, we also remember our brothers and sisters around the world who live under oppressive regimes. Many believers aren’t able to freely gather and worship you without fear of persecution. Would you change the hearts of those leaders and continue to give those Christians the boldness to remain steadfast?

Lord, we know that one day you will come and make all things new, and we eagerly await the day when you will bring us home and wipe away every tear. Give us the grace to trust you more.

In Jesus’ name, 

Amen.

By / Nov 3

What makes a good president of the United States? Are there certain traits that naturally lend themselves toward an individual’s success in the highest office in the land? Do we expect too much from the individuals we choose to be president? These questions are just a handful of the ones that author John Dickerson tackles in his fascinating new book, The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency.

Dickerson, easily one of my favorite political analysts, has written one of the most engaging overviews of the American executive branch. As I read it in the run-up to the 2020 election, it helped clarify for me the real and imagined roles of the presidency and gave me an appreciation for the men who have held the office in our history. One thing it confirmed for me: character matters.

“Character in many ways is everything in leadership,” remarked former U.S. President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. “Character is really integrity.” As you read the book, you can’t help but come away with a new appreciation for Ike and his deep knowledge of effective leadership. That seems to have been a major objective for Dickerson in writing this book (he said in a recent interview he fell in love with Eisenhower as Dickerson researched his administration for this book).

High demands of our nation’s leader

Why is that so important as a reader? Because in this time where leadership too often is defined as having the loudest voice or the deepest grievance, our nation’s greatest leaders have often provided helpful examples in opposition to those things. In fact, as you read this book, you come to realize that our most successful presidents have cast a vision that is accessible to more than just the Americans who voted for them. As one example, Dickerson uses John F. Kennedy’s prediction that television would allow presidential candidates to speak directly to Americans––and then doing just that in his campaign.

Beyond the poetry of campaigning, this leadership trait of inclusion extends to the prose of governing, as well. Dickerson discusses how it informs the team-building process of presidential administrations. He highlights a quote from famed management expert Peter Drucker who said, “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say ‘I.’ They don’t think ‘I.’ They think ‘we’; they think ‘team.’” When a president takes this approach, he or she will be sowing seeds for potential success as the administration takes flight after Inauguration Day. 

Throughout the book, Dickerson explores the various constitutional roles required of the nation’s chief executive as well as the ones Americans have now come to expect the president to play. Our Constitution is very clear that the president is the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces. As the years have passed, though, we’ve also asked the president to be what Dickerson calls our “consoler in chief” when tragedy strikes our nation. When a deranged white supremacist murdered nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, former President Barack Obama used the moment to discuss God’s grace––a particularly poignant theme the nation needed to hear in that dark hour. But why is this vital for our nation? 

Dickerson answers that by pointing to former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan who said, “speeches are important because they are one of the great constants of our political history. They have not only been the way we measure public men, they how we tell each other who we are.” Thus, a president’s words matter, not only because they have the ability to soothe or unite, but because they connect the current occupant of the White House with those who came before him. While speeches can play an important role in binding up the wounds of a nation, it is probably unrealistic to expect one person to resolve all the issues that come across the president’s desk. Dickerson shows us that it was never designed to be like this. 

Designed to be different 

Our Founding Fathers meticulously built our democratic republic, carefully weighing how each “grain” of power would affect one branch over the others. Their expectation was that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches would work in tension with one another, balancing out the ambition and moves of the other. The Founders were especially concerned with ensuring the president was kept in check. Why? Dickerson writes, “The founders were realistic about human weakness, but they believed that because they were so aware of its shortcomings, they could design a new government that not only accounted for man’s weakness but used it to keep balance.” To underscore this, Dickerson also includes a foreboding prediction by Benjamin Franklin: “The executive will always be increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in monarchy.” The last word should send a shudder down the spine of every American since that is what our ancestors revolted against in 1776. 


Ultimately, that continual use of the lens of history may be the most important takeaway from Dickerson’s book. He continually provides the reader with perspective. Whether it’s the quadrennial assertion that this election is the most important election of our lifetimes or the claims of certain disaster if one candidate or the other prevails, we live in a time devoid of such perspective. That can be especially worrisome when every individual has a megaphone and can broadcast their hottest takes for the world to see. As Christians, though, we are called to a higher standard, one of discernment. I have found that reading books like this highly-informative one help push me further along the road toward wisdom and understanding. After reading The Hardest Job in the World, those will be two traits I always look for in a president (or candidate for any office) from now on.

By / Oct 30

On Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls to finish casting their ballots for the 2020 election. But while that will complete the process for many of the offices they are voting for (such as for Senators or state legislatures), it is merely the first step in the Electoral College process that is used to elect the President and Vice President of the United States. Here is what you should know about that process.

What is the Electoral College?

Although the term “Electoral College” is never used in the Constitution (Article 2, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3), the electors that choose the President at each election are traditionally called a College (meaning a group of people organized toward a common goal). The Electoral College was proposed by James Wilson, a leading constitutional lawyer among the Founding Fathers, at the Constitutional Convention. Wilson’s plan was offered as a compromise between those who wanted the Congress to choose the president and those who believed the election should be decided by the state legislatures. The Framers were generally in agreement against giving the people the power to directly elect the president.

What amendments to the U.S. Constitution affect the Electoral College?

There have been only two amendments to the constitution involving the Electoral College. The 12th Amendment specifies that electors must cast distinct votes for the president and vice president, rather than electoral votes for two candidates. The 23rd Amendment gives this District of Columbia voting rights equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, but in no event more than the least populous state (D.C. currently has three electoral votes).

Who decides how many electoral votes each state receives?

Each state receives an electoral vote for each U.S. Senator (two per state) plus one for each Congressional representative. Since the number of representatives is based on population, the state’s electoral votes are also based on the number of people who reside within a state. Currently, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members (435 in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate), and the three electors who represent Washington, D.C.

How do electoral votes decide who becomes President?

On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December (for 2020 election that will be December 14), the electors of each state meet in their respective state capitals to cast the official votes for President and Vice President. These votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate (the current Vice President), who will open and read the votes on January 6th in the presence of both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office exactly two weeks later, at noon January 20.

Who are these electors?

The political party of the state’s popular vote-winning candidate designates its electors.

Since the political parties choose electors, they tend to be partisan political activists. The Constitution doesn’t have any requirements other than specifications for who cannot be an elector: A Representative or Senator, a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of “trust or profit,” or anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S.

Do the electors have to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in their state?

No. According to the Constitution (and a recent Supreme Court decision), the elector is free to cast his vote for anyone he or she chooses. In fact, there have been about 156 times when electors have voted contrary to the will of the people in their state, making them a “faithless elector.” Faithless electors, however, have never changed an election outcome. Anyone who votes against their state’s choice essentially ruins any future they might have had with their political party.

How many electoral votes are needed to win the election?

A Presidential candidate must receive a majority of the electoral votes (270 of the 538 eligible) in order to win the election. If no one receives a majority then the decision is made by the House of Representatives with each state delegation receiving one vote to cast for the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. This has happened twice in our nation’s history with the House choosing Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams being selected over Andrew Jackson.

Wouldn’t relying on the popular vote be a better system?

Not necessarily. The main argument in favor of the Electoral college is that it protects federalism, and allows smaller states to have an influence on the choice of president. This also requires presidential candidates to take into consideration regional preferences. Without the Electoral College, California, Texas, Florida, and New York would likely determine the outcome of every election.

The popular vote is subject to types of fraud that don’t apply to the Electoral College system (except perhaps in swing states). Political parties, for instance, have no incentive to “run up the vote” when their candidate is going to take their state anyway, so they are less likely to resort to direct fraud. An effect of this potential benefit, though, is makes it virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to ever be elected.