Why Electoral College members are asking for an intelligence briefing

Electors have requested a briefing before the Electoral College meets next week, after intelligence reports about Russian hacking of the election have left some asking what President-elect Donald Trump knew about these efforts.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this Jan. 4, 2013 file photo, clerks unseal the certificates of results from all fifty states during a meeting of the U.S. Electoral College in the House of Representatives on Capitol in Washington. The Electoral College was devised at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a compromise meant to strike a balance between those who wanted popular elections for president and those who wanted no public input. Ten electors have penned a letter asking for an intelligence briefing ahead of the Electoral College vote next week.

On Monday, 10 electors from six states and the District of Columbia penned a letter to the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, asking to be briefed on any ongoing investigations from US intelligence agencies into Russian involvement in November’s election. If there is a connection between President-elect Donald Trump and these Russia-linked actors, the electors argued, they need to know about it in order to fulfill their mandate of preventing foreign powers from becoming unduly influential.

Most years, the role of an elector is a purely ceremonial one: electors vote as directed by their state's popular vote. This year, however, the Electoral College has been in the spotlight. A Texas elector who resigned rather than vote for Trump made national headlines. After Trump won the Electoral College – despite Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton winning at least 2.6 million more votes – some, like outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California have called for the abolition of the Electoral College. Others, including the so-called Hamilton Electors, have asked electors to choose a consensus Republican candidate rather than Trump.

For the electors who signed the letter to the National Intelligence director – up to 29 signatures by Tuesday morning – their role is “not just a ceremonial thing,” Bev Hollingworth, a retired hotel owner and New Hampshire elector, told ABC News. Being informed about the ongoing investigation will allow electors to fulfill a constitutional duty that “goes beyond politics,” she said.

Of particular concern is the statement by parts of the US intelligence services that hackers linked to Russia intended to support Donald Trump’s candidacy for president.

"It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected," a senior US official said in a presentation to senators, as The Washington Post reports. "That's the consensus view."

The selection of Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief executive, as nominee for secretary of State, has renewed concerns about the Trump administration's potential ties to Russia. Trump himself made numerous pro-Russian statements on the campaign trail, including repeatedly praising Russian president Vladimir Putin, and publicly called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails. 

John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, said the letter raises “very grave issues involving our national security.”

“Electors have a solemn responsibility under the Constitution and we support their efforts to have their questions addressed,” he said in a statement, according to CNN.

Since the intelligence reports are classified, the requested briefing currently looks unlikely, given electors' lack of security clearance. Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, who signed the letter, suggested that electors should receive temporary security clearance before casting their votes, Politico reports.

Even if the electors are granted a briefing, however, it may be unlikely to change their minds about Trump: many of those who have signed the letter represent states that voted blue. To prevent Trump from being elected, 37 Republican electors would have to defect, and the decision would then go to the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans. As such, Trump is still likely to become president, whether or not the briefing is given.

The Electoral College is schedule to meet to vote on December 19.

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