USA Politics

What’s behind push for Electoral College to defy Trump

Modes of thought

To those who are lobbying against a vote for Trump, he is the kind of candidate the Founding Fathers worried about – and thus electors should vet the people's choice in light of the national interest.

Activists demonstrate against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin, one day ahead of the meetings of the Electoral College in the U.S., December 18, 2016.
Mohammad Khursheed/Reuters | Caption

Janet Prensky is torn. She knows the Electoral College should anoint Donald Trump president when it convenes on Dec. 19. Its electors are supposed to represent the popular will of their states. If they act as a rubber stamp  – per usual – Mr. Trump will win.

But she hopes that doesn’t happen. Another side of the Boston marketing worker believes the election was “stolen” from Hillary Clinton and that every day Trump shows he’s unfit for the Oval Office. Maybe, just maybe, the last-shot bid to get Electoral College members to change their votes will succeed.

“I hold out hope that America will wake up to what occurred on Election Day and realize the error of [its] ways,” she says.

Welcome to the conflicted world of the new US opposition. Some 66 million American citizens voted for someone other than Donald Trump for president. For many of them today – the day the Electoral College is expected to make Trump’s election official – is a Rubicon they can’t quite believe the nation will cross.

That has spawned a kind of political magical thinking. On the one hand, most know that it would rip the nation apart if Trump was now denied the presidency. After all, 63 million US citizens voted for the Republican candidate. Presumably most view Trump and his transition activities in a positive light. They would be aghast and furious at an Electoral College rebellion.

“It’s out of hand when you have such … a small group of people that is pushing so hard against millions ... of people who still appreciate this whole system,” Donald Graham, an Arizona elector and chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, told Fox News. “The Electoral College is part of the Constitution.”

On the other hand, many are aghast at the prospect of President Trump. A man who doesn’t want daily intelligence briefings, angrily tweets at entertainment magazines, and appears to be mixing transition and business activities? For many Trump opponents, shock and dismay at his election is hardening into an implacable opposition. They wish the Electoral College, instead of behaving like it always does, would save America from itself.

“In modern times, there has never been this much resistance against the Electoral College. It’s not because of his policies, it’s because of his disqualifying manner and character,” says Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and creator of the Electors Trust, which offers legal advice to any member of the Electoral College who wishes to vote against their state winner.

Though the Electoral College is unlikely to vote against Trump, the exercise of lobbying electors to do so can serve as a pressure valve for opponents of a Trump presidency. It is "a means to vent," says Robert Alexander, a political scientist at Ohio Northern University and Electoral College expert.

How the Electoral College works

On Monday the Electoral College gathers in 51 separate meetings to cast the ballots that will formally determine the winner of November’s election. News flash: Donald Trump will still win.

OK, it’s theoretically possible that enough electors will revolt and Trump won’t get the 270 votes he needs to be confirmed in office. But there’s been no sign of widespread elector unrest. All indications are that virtually every elector considers it his or her duty to follow the indicated preference of their state voters.

A quick reminder: The Electoral College is America’s indirect method of naming the next president. It’s in the Constitution. It was a compromise between Founding Fathers who wanted the president to be chosen by Congress, and others who wanted an electoral system that more closely reflected the will of the voters.

Under the Electoral College, each state gets a number of electoral votes for president and vice president equal to its number of senators and representatives. Actual people, who have been chosen by state political parties, cast these votes.

Nothing in the Constitution or federal law actually forces these electors to vote according to the popular vote in their states. Some states have laws that bind electors to state results, but none has ever been prosecuted for a violation. Then again, there’s been no need – virtually every elector has gone with the candidates who won their state in the past.

Lobbying electors to vote their conscience

This year, though, there’s been an explosion of lobbying aimed at getting “faithless” electors in states Trump won to vote for someone else. Millions of US voters have signed online petitions or sent actual letters urging the change.

The argument behind the lobbying is that Trump is the kind of candidate the Founding Fathers worried about. His character is suspect, according to his critics, as shown by his bizarre tweets, rambling speeches, and constant disregard of facts. Russian hacking might have swayed the election, they add, and Trump’s foreign business entanglements seem worrisome.

The Electoral College exists to coolly vet the people’s choice in light of the national interest, in this view. Alexander Hamilton would reject Donald Trump, opponents argue, not because of his policies and what he wants to do, but because of who he is.

"He’s not just someone we disagree with, he’s someone who is psychologically not qualified to be president,” says Mr. Lessig.

But among Trump supporters there does not appear to be widespread second-guessing. While critics yell about “unfitness,” his voters seem to still like him just fine.

In that context, the effort to lobby electors might look more like a partisan effort to re-litigate the election. It’s Trump’s existing opponents looking for reasons to justify their opinion rather than the other way round.

“People will find reasons for questioning the legitimacy of a presidency they don’t favor,” says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist and Director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

Given the concerns leading up to the election that Trump and his supporters may not recognize the legitimacy of a Hillary Clinton presidency, there is a certain irony. Trump tweeted Sunday: "If my many supporters acted and threatened people like those who lost the election are doing, they would be scorned & called terrible names!"

Few olive branches

Trump is in a delicate position, given that he handily lost the overall popular vote and remains, according to Gallup, the least popular winner of a presidential election in the past 24 years.

But he’s not helping himself, either – for example, dismissing concerns about Russian hacking while holding raucous rallies reminiscent of the campaign and boasting of an “historic” victory.

“He has done very little to extend an olive branch to those who didn’t vote for him. In fact, I think he has further agitated them,” says Robert Alexander, a political scientist at Ohio Northern University and Electoral College expert.

Not all Trump’s opponents think electors should revolt and block him from the presidency by switching votes to a different Republican or Mrs. Clinton. Boston schoolteacher Dan Harris says such an action would be a “slippery slope” that could lead to unanticipated problems in the future.

It’s possible that President Trump might even redeem himself, says Mr. Harris, “if he doesn’t enact terrible policies that ... are going to hurt lots of people."

But he does not think that is very likely. His concern hints at the depth of opposition Trump faces on the brink of assuming the highest political office in the nation.

“The people he has appointed to his cabinet are really terrifying and I think it’s way more likely that he says ‘go’ and lets them do their thing.... I think that’s pretty scary,” says Harris.