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Why we have the Electoral College and how it works in California

NPR Electoral College battleground map for July 17, 2016. The electoral college system was established in the Constitution in 1787.
NPR Electoral College battleground map for July 17, 2016. The electoral college system was established in the Constitution in 1787.
Alyson Hurt and Domenico Montanaro/NPR

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The 45th President of the United States will be officially elected today.

Across the country, the 538 members of the Electoral College will meet at state capitols to cast their votes for the next U.S. President.

Here in California, the state's 55 electors (the most of any state) will meet in Sacramento on Monday to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. And while many Clinton supporters may be hoping that today's Electoral College vote will change the outcome of the election, that's unlikely to happen.

Donald Trump lost the popular vote, but he's expected to win the majority of electoral votes, and that's what will determine the final outcome of the election. For Trump to lose the electoral vote, 37 electors would have to switch their loyalties from Trump to Clinton or another candidate.

So how was the Electoral College process decided on in the first place?

Derek Muller, an associate law professor at Pepperdine University, says the framers of the Constitution weighed a lot of different options before they came up with "this somewhat unusual system where the state legislatures would choose electors, these dispassionate individuals who would then gather for a temporary meeting and cast votes for the next president and vice president of the United States."

The idea behind a temporary meeting in state capitols all over the country instead of in one central place, Muller explains, was so "there wouldn't be corruption, or intrigue, or the concern that these people would expect some kind of political favors from others. They were just ordinary citizens put in for a temporary job to select the next president."

Those "ordinary people" who are chosen to be electors in California are picked by the political parties. California's 55 Democratic electors are chosen by the leading Democrats in each Congressional District and the two most recent Democratic nominees for the Senate.

Raymond Cordova, a union leader in Garden Grove who's serving as an elector for the fourth time, says he considers it an honor to be selected: "It was important for me to be [an elector] for Barack Obama to elect the first African American, and also for Hillary Clinton, the first female."

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Shawn Terris, chair of the Veteran's Caucus of the California Democratic Party, says she was surprised and honored to be selected as an elector. But she believes the original purpose of the Electoral College process has been lost.

"I think when Madison and the founding fathers put this [process] together, they created these electors in order to have a fail-safe process to prevent a demagogue from being elected," Terris says. "What has happened over the last hundred plus years is that it's just an automatic vote by the electors instead of evaluating whether the person is competent and fit to lead our country."

So could the Electoral College process ever be amended or abolished? Derek Muller says it's a very unlikely proposition, but there might be momentum behind the idea now.

"Donald Trump has inconsistently, but occasionally suggested that he opposes the Electoral College," Muller says. "And it might be a time for some discussion, especially given all of the concerns of electors voting for somebody else today, that perhaps there will be some reform efforts in the years ahead."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue media player above.