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Five designees control NM’s presidential vote

In December, five specially selected New Mexico Democrats will travel to Santa Fe, meet in a little room with the secretary of state and cast their votes for president of the United States.

It is this group that actually votes for the president — not the 800,528 state citizens who cast a ballot Nov. 8.

And they could vote for whomever they would  like, although that would break state law.

This Electoral College process — set out in the Constitution — has in the past resulted in the selection of a president who came in second in the national vote.

That is almost certain to happen again this year, which would make it the fifth time in presidential history that the second-place finisher in the popular vote won the presidency.

As of Saturday, vote counts for nearly all states had yet to be finalized and certified, but many political watchers spent the week anticipating that Democrat Hillary Clinton’s popular vote would exceed President-elect Donald Trump’s by more than 1 million votes.

“It’s a complicated institution in some ways, and it’s one that emphasizes state interests over who wins the most votes,” said University of New Mexico professor Lonna Atkeson, who is also the director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy. “It combines the number of people in each states’ delegation, the House plus Senate, and those are the number of electors in each state.”

So, New Mexico has five electors, who are selected by the political parties. The slate of electors from whichever party wins the popular vote in the state is the group that travels to Santa Fe in December to cast the state’s five presidential votes.

No federal rules say that electors must vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state.

But 25 states, including New Mexico, have laws that direct electors to vote in accordance with the state’s popular vote.

Here, any elector who votes for someone other than the presidential candidate of his or her party could face a fourth-degree felony charge.

It’s one of the harshest penalties for electors in the country, though there is no documented case of prosecution for being a “faithless elector,” according to the National Archives and Records Administration.

And New Mexico is a winner-take-all state, like all but two states, Maine and Nebraska. Those states divvy up their electoral votes differently.

State laws govern how votes are divided, and those laws can be changed.

A national effort is underway to get states to commit to give their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote instead of whoever wins the state’s popular vote.

So far, 11 state legislatures have passed laws that would award their elector votes that way if enough other states agree to do the same.

In 2009, the New Mexico House of  Representatives approved a bill that would have moved the state to that system, but the bill died in the Senate.

National Popular Vote Initiative supporters tried again in 2011. Atkeson said this year’s election could revive the conversation.

“People could say the Electoral College was working in its prime in this contest,” Atkeson said. “But others say because the president is the only nationally elected office, it should connect to the people explicitly and not the states.”