The Electoral College meets Monday to formally elect the new president amidst growing debate about its role and whether it should even exist.

Progressive groups are planning protests at state capitols all over the country, which is where the electors will cast their votes. “The electors should follow the will of the people,” said activist Daniel Brezenoff in a statement. “Trump lost the popular vote by a historic margin and he should lose on Dec. 19 at the Electoral College.” Brezenoff’s Change.org petition to that effect has collected nearly 5 million signatures.

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, who ran a short-lived campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been offering legal advice to “faithless” Republican electors who want to vote for someone other than the president-elect. Others have demanded intelligence briefings for the electors so they can learn the truth about alleged Russian hacks of Democrats before they vote.

“Russians hacking our democracy to elect Trump should tell you everything you need to know about him,” said progressive activist Ryan Clayton of Americans Take Action.

For the second time in just 16 years, the winner of the electoral vote did not finish first in the national tabulation of the popular vote. This is arguably the biggest popular-electoral vote mismatch yet. Donald Trump earned more than 300 electoral votes, a solid win, while Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more popular votes nationwide.

By contrast, George W. Bush was elected president with 271 electoral votes — just one more than was necessary to secure the majority and five votes more than Al Gore — while trailing his Democratic opponent by a razor-thin 539,000 in the popular vote out of more than 100 million cast.

As Gore and Clinton can attest, the electoral vote total is all that matters under the Constitution. But from 1892 to 1996, the electoral and popular vote winners were the same. During the 20th century, presidential election results began to be reported according to the popular vote totals while the Electoral College was viewed as a mere formality.

Republicans have now won the presidency without coming in first in the popular vote twice since 2000. This happened only three times in history prior to that, most recently in 1888. With the polarizing Trump the latest to win under these unusual circumstances, some are questioning the democratic legitimacy of the process.

At the same time, the fact that Clinton’s popular vote margin comes entirely from California makes it a textbook example of a major reason the Electoral College exists in the first place — to prevent the largest state population from outvoting the rest of the country and choosing the president.

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“The popular vote number is incredibly deceiving,” said Republican strategist Brad Todd. “Her margins in New York City and in Los Angeles wildly skew the popular vote.”

The presidential race wasn’t really contested in these areas, while Trump won in the battleground states where the contest was actually fought. In the 13 swing states, the popular vote percentages are almost the reverse of the national figures: 48.3 percent for Trump, 46.6 percent for Clinton.

Running up the score in safely Democratic areas didn’t deliver Clinton many electoral votes. “Hillary won 42 of the 50 largest cities,” Todd said. “Only four of them were decisive in delivering electoral votes.” He counted Minneapolis, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Portland Ore., for a grand total of 28 votes in the Electoral College.

“We believe that Mr. Trump won legitimately under the current system,” said Patrick Rosenstiel of the National Popular Vote campaign. “We believe that system is fundamentally broken.”

What is that system? The U.S. presidential contest is really a composite of 50 state elections plus the District of Columbia, not the national popular vote. States are allocated electoral votes based on the size of their House delegations plus their two senators, which is a reflection of their population sizes. D.C. gets the minimum number of three electoral votes.

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Forty-eight of these states plus DC award all their electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner. Maine and Nebraska award some electoral votes by congressional district. The total number of votes is 538, with 270 required to win.

This is similar to the process both major parties use to choose their respective presidential nominees, except the states vote on different days. This was never as controversial as the Electoral College — until 2008.

That year, Barack Obama secured the delegates necessary to win the Democratic presidential nomination, but by some counts trailed Hillary Clinton in the total number of primary votes cast nationwide. (Obama wasn’t on the ballot in Michigan while Clinton was; his votes exceeded hers counting only the states where they competed head-to-head.)

Clinton dead-enders began to argue that the Democratic delegates should nominate the popular vote winner, a number that is even more flawed than in the general election because some states hold low-turnout caucuses instead of primaries. Clinton nevertheless conceded and Obama became the nominee.

The argument was that both party rules and the federalist character of our government should be trumped by the democratic principle of “one man, one vote.” “The Electoral College ought to have been struck from the Constitution or invalidated by the Supreme Court long ago,” legal expert Kenneth Jost argued in the Los Angeles Times, later adding, “The Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution, but that doesn’t necessarily make it constitutional.”

Yet in 2016, we heard calls for delegates to ignore the popular vote and instead vote their conscience.

Bernie Sanders briefly urged unelected Democratic superdelegates to nominate him instead of Clinton, despite her receiving over 3.7 million more votes nationwide. The Never Trump movement was particularly insistent that the convention delegates decided the GOP presidential nominee, not the primaries or caucuses, and that these delegates had a sacred right to vote their conscience.

Trump received over 5.6 million more votes than the runner-up. That margin is greater than the total number of votes won by 15 of the 17 major candidates for the Republican nomination. Some of the “white knight” candidates floated by Never Trump activists didn’t win any primary votes at all.

There’s a similar tension evident in the Electoral College protests. Some are calling on the electors to vote according to their consciences, others are demanding they abide by the popular vote results. And some are requesting they do both.

“All presidential electors have a constitutional right to vote their conscience and the responsibility to follow the will of people by voting for the winner of the national popular vote,” said Tania Maduro, organizer for a progressive group called Democracy Spring, in a statement.

“Republican members of the Electoral College, this message is for you,” actor Martin Sheen exhorted in a video aimed at the electors’ consciences rather than the primacy of the popular vote. “As you know, our Founding Fathers built the Electoral College to safeguard the American people from the dangers of a demagogue, and to ensure that the presidency only goes to someone who is to an ’eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.'”

“By voting your conscience, you and other brave Republican electors can give the House of Representatives the option to select a qualified candidate for the presidency,” said Sheen’s former “West Wing” co-star Richard Schiff.

This makes some of the Electoral College-bashing on the left look politically expedient. Some activists demanding Trump be dethroned by faithless electors in favor of the popular vote winner were silent when their colleagues pressed John Kerry to contest the 2004 results in Ohio. Kerry would have become president with Ohio’s electoral votes, but George W. Bush still would have won an absolute majority of the popular vote — not a plurality like Clinton or Gore.

Repeated mismatches between the popular and electoral vote, especially if they continue to benefit only one party, do have the potential to erode its credibility in eyes of many Democratic voters. But it is hard to see what they can do about it. The Electoral College can only be abolished by a constitutional amendment, which will require ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

Republicans control 68 state legislative chambers to the Democrats’ 31. The partisan composition of state legislatures aside, there isn’t a broad consensus in favor of such a sweeping constitutional change.

“Most Americans live in a state where the election was pretty close or a state that Trump won,” said Todd. They aren’t necessarily going to be clamoring for the end of the Electoral College.

Some advocate a compact among states to require their electors to vote for the national popular vote winner. That wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment. Such legislation has passed in 11 states representing 165 electoral votes and cleared a single state legislative chamber in 12 more states with 96 electoral votes. The compact would go into effect once it was agreed to by enough states to command an Electoral College majority.

“Ninety-four percent of the last campaign happened in just 12 states,” Rosenstiel said. Two-thirds were held in only six states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Michigan.

While some support the National Popular Vote campaign because it achieves a similar objective as Electoral College abolition but through a less cumbersome political process, Rosenstiel argues it is superior in principle. The allocation of electoral votes would remain under the control of the states, while an anti-Electoral College amendment would take away this power.

“State-based reform,” Rosenstiel said, is the “constitutionally appropriate” way to change the system.

Rosenstiel also contends that the disproportionate influence of battleground states has produced policy outcomes conservatives dislike. He specifically points to the enactment of the deficit-funded Medicare prescription drug benefit under Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress as something that “likely wouldn’t have happened” if the GOP didn’t need to win Florida in 2004 to have any hope of keeping the White House.

Advocates on both sides agree that if the popular vote was determinative, the major party candidates would have campaigned differently and possibly achieved a different result.

“Grassroots campaigning matters more” under the current system, Todd said. If all that mattered was the popular vote, candidates would “only do television advertising, no in-person campaigning.”

Popular vote boosters claim that the persistence of retail politics in gubernatorial and Senate races suggests such worries are overblown. “It ignores the reality of American politics,” said Rosenstiel. “The ground game is still important.”

The reality of American politics as of Monday is that the candidate with a majority of electoral votes will be the 45th president of the United States. It’s a reality that won’t make protesters parked outside statehouses very happy.

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