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North Carolina has 15 Electoral College votes. Here's how it works.
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North Carolina has 15 Electoral College votes. Here's how it works.

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Early voting (copy)

People cast votes during early voting at Deep River Recreation Center in High Point on Thursday.

RALEIGH — One of the reasons North Carolina is being watched around the world in the run-up to the presidential election is because of its electoral votes.

Our state has 15 electoral votes, which can be enough to swing an election. The presidential ticket needs at least 270 electoral votes, a majority of the 538 total, to win. Because North Carolina is evenly-divided politically, whichever candidate wins the state has a good chance of winning the national election.

Here's a guide to the Electoral College in North Carolina:

Is the Electoral College a place?

No. As the National Archives describes it, the Electoral College is "a process, not a place." In North Carolina, the secretary of state oversees the Electoral College meeting. Elaine Marshall holds that office currently.

Why do we have an Electoral College, and what does it do?

The Electoral College was included in the U.S. Constitution as a compromise between Congress electing the president and citizens electing the president. Instead of directly electing the president and vice president, voters actually vote for which candidate they want their state's electors to vote for, and those electors in turn elect the president and vice president.

That is why a candidate can win the popular vote nationwide but not the election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received nearly 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump, but Trump won the election with 304 electoral votes.

So where do they vote?

In North Carolina, the Electoral College meets in the House chamber of the old State Capitol building in downtown Raleigh, according to state law.

When does the Electoral College vote?

This year the vote will take place Monday, Dec. 14. All Electoral College votes across the United States are cast on the same day.

Do people want to change the Electoral College process?

Yes, there have been many challenges to the process. But it can only change by Constitutional amendment because it is part of the U.S. Constitution.

How many electors does North Carolina have? Why?

North Carolina has 15 electors. That's two electors for our two U.S. senators and 13 electors because that's how many House seats we have in Congress. Each state gets two for its senators, and the rest correspond to the number of representatives.

Which party gets to vote for North Carolina?

Each political party on the presidential ballot chooses 15 electors, usually at its state convention. That means there are 15 Democrats, 15 Republicans and 15 each for the Green, Constitution and Libertarian parties who are in-waiting, along with alternates. Whichever political party's candidate wins North Carolina, those electors are the ones who vote. Of the 15, two are chosen at-large and the other 13 are chosen from each of the state's Congressional districts.

What is it like to be an elector?

Republican Susan Mills of Fayetteville is one of this year's N.C. GOP electors. She is a high school family and consumer sciences teacher and has been involved in the Republican Party at the county, district and state level, serving in several leadership roles. She was previously an alternate elector, but this is her first year as an elector, she told The News & Observer in an interview. Mills is the elector for the 8th Congressional District.

Mills said that as a big supporter of President Donald Trump, it is very exciting that she might be able to cast an electoral vote for him.

"I'm looking forward to the actual pomp and circumstance, because I think a lot of people don't realize how important the Electoral College is, and without that, other states would dominate the election," Mills said. "This gives us a voice."

Marshall, the secretary of state and a Democrat, said the Democratic Party's electors also have worked for many years in the party.

"It is kind of like a crowning glory," Marshall said.

What if electors don't vote?

They pay a fine and someone takes their place. State law says that any presidential elector who already said he (the law does not include "she," though women are electors) would serve, must attend and vote for the presidential candidate of their political party. If they forfeit, they pay a $500 fine.

There are exceptions for sickness or "other unavoidable accident." Also, if they refuse or fail to vote for their political party's candidate, that counts as resigning as elector. Their vote won't be recorded, and the rest of the electors will fill the vacancy with an alternate.

Do electors get paid?

Yes, for attending the ceremony, they are paid $44 per day plus traveling expenses of 17 cents per mile to drive to and from home.

When do we find out who the electors are?

Each party sends their list to the secretary of state in advance, but the names are not disclosed until the State Board of Elections certifies the election results and the governor is notified.

How is the governor involved?

The governor proclaims the list of electors and tells them to come to "the old Hall of the House of Representatives in the State Capitol in the City of Raleigh at noon on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next after their election." The proclamation is published in the Raleigh daily newspaper, per statute.

So is there a ceremony?

In North Carolina, the secretary of state makes arrangements for the meeting, prepares the agenda and invites guests.

Marshall was first elected secretary of state in 1996, the first woman to hold a statewide executive branch position. She is currently running for reelection.

In an interview, Marshall said she was impressed that the Electoral College was the most important thing the state does for the presidential election, though most people don't realize they are voting for electors rather than the president and vice president directly.

"I thought it could use a little bit of upgrading," Marshall said. She frequently invites young people to be part of the ceremony, she said, including musical performances.

Though state law requires the ceremony be held in the old Capitol House chamber, it isn't the ideal location because of space and because it "is not friendly to people with walking issues," Marshall said.

The balcony is mostly off-limits for safety reasons, she said, and the center aisle drops down an inch. Marshall said the chamber itself is "lovely," just not ideal for everyone.

The Senate chamber is used for overflow space, because many people like to attend the ceremony, she said. The General Assembly convenes in the Legislative Building about a block away from the old State Capitol, which dates to 1840.

Has COVID-19 affected the North Carolina Electoral College?

Only regarding the ceremony, and then not much. It will still be held in person, but there will be fewer guests and no live performances. Instead, musical performances will be pre-recorded, Marshall said. She has not announced the final program.

"There's no intention to minimize the pageantry of the event," she said.

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