WHAT'S GIVING YOU HOPE?
THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE
The last time I thought this hard about the Electoral College, I was cramming for my 10th grade civics exam, and I’m pretty sure I thought the College was a place, not a process. George Bush Jr. was the scariest Republican we could fathom and reason and rationality still reigned supreme. Ah, the good ol’ days…
This election cycle, in yet another unprecedented twist, the Electoral College is actually relevant. And they have a heavy choice: loyally cast their expected vote, or honor the spirit of the College and take a stance against the demagogue that is Donald Trump.
So, how the hell does this all work? I’ve done a little research and it turns out the Electoral College isn’t actually a Public Ivy in Iowa, and no, you can’t apply for early admission…
HISTORY OF THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE
In Poli Sci 101, I learned that we don’t actually live in a pure democracy; rather, our government has democratic features and a representative foundation. We the People collectively have a voice, and our Representatives ideally serve as our mouthpiece. Because, in the wise words of John Adams, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”
In true Founding Fathers form, the men squabbled over the election process – some wanted Congress to elect the Prez and VP, others wanted a popular vote. Classic Founders face off. Ultimately, a compromise emerged in the shape of the Electoral College. The People’s voice would be heard, but it would not be absolute.
You might be seriously questioning everything you thought you knew about America and “democracy” at this point, but these Founders were smart. In a little piece of literature called the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote about the importance of the People feeling heard in the process, but noted that it is “equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.” “Men”… ugh. Typical.
Anyway, Hamilton trusted that the Electors would be qualified to conduct investigations into the candidate, to ensure that the President-elect is in fact qualified to run the Free World. Because, of course, “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Right? And certainly, nobody with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” would pass the Electors’ scrutiny. And they would definitely be capable of weaseling out “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Uh…this is all sounding scarily familiar...
Man, Hamilton is having a good year.
HOW THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE WORKS
Good news: Donald Trump hasn’t actually been elected President yet. The official election of President and Vice President happens on December 19, 2016 when the Electoral College casts their votes. And those votes aren't tallied until Congress meets on January 6, 2017. So, there’s still a small, very slight sliver of hope.
The Electoral College consists of 538 Electors (mirrors Congressional numbers), so 270 are needed for a victory. While the process for selection varies from state to state, in general, it is a two-part process. First, the political parties in each state nominate slates of potential Electors at the state’s party convention, or by vote of the parties’ central committees. Thus, each individual presidential candidate has it’s own potential Electors. In any other election, it would be considered an honor to be selected – a “thank you” for service and dedication to the Party. But, in this election, I imagine the Electors are cursing the gods. Seriously, no pressure.
Second, on Election Day, voters cast their ballot for President, and thus, for Electors. In some states, the Electors’ names even appear on the ballot beneath the candidate. And, ta-da! - the winning Presidential candidate’s Electors are appointed as the State’s Electors! Two exceptions: Maine and Nebraska, which exercise proportional representation. Way to be different, guys!
Luckily, there are no Constitutional requirements or Federal laws that require Electors to vote a certain way. Follow your hearts, we say! But, in some states, Electors are bound by State law to abide by popular vote. And in other states, the Electors are bound by a pledge to their political party. "Faithless Electors" may be subject to fines or disqualification for casting an invalid vote. Apparently, substitute Electors are just waiting in the wings…While that seems like a reasonable democratic “feature,” I wish that part would just go away this year.
Because the Electoral College typically functions as a formality, throughout history, 99% of Electors have voted as pledged. And certainly, Faithless Electors have never actually affected the outcome of the election. In turn, no Elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.
On December 19, 2016, the Electors will meet and write in their separate votes for President and Vice President. These votes will be held under seal until January 6, 2017 when Congress meets in a joint session to officially tally the votes. Joe Biden, Vice President, President of the Senate, and all-around cutie, will preside over the session. After a little help tallying the votes, Joe will declare which persons, if any, have been declared Prez and VP.
Then objections to either individual votes or state returns as a whole will be considered. Objections are submitted in writing and must be signed by at least one member of House and Senate. The House and Senate withdraw to their respective chambers to consider objections and vote on resolution (don’t worry, there’s a strict 2-hour time limit). If the chambers agree to the objection, then the votes in question are not counted. If either chamber does not agree to the objection, then the vote is counted.
If neither candidate clinches the majority vote, then according to the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives makes the call. In the event of a tie (270 to 270), then the House decides the President and Senate picks the Vice President… weird, huh?
WHAT TO EXPECT ON DECEMBER 19 AND JANUARY 6
I have no idea. This is absolutely unprecedented. We are currently living in an alternate universe where absolutely anything is reasonably possible. Just yesterday, Virginia Congressman, Don Beyer, called for indefinitely postponing the vote while the CIA continues to investigate whether Russia hacked the election to favor reality star, Donald Trump. See what I mean about that alternate universe?
Many in woeful, post-election despair have written off the Electoral College. “Don’t get your hopes up,” they say. “It’s up to the House in the end, anyway,” they quip. Well gosh darn it, I think these fine folks deserve a little more credit. This week, 40 Electors signed an open letter demanding an intelligence briefing on Russian interference with the election. That’s a good sign that they are being thoughtful and honoring the duties laid out by Hamilton. And if we have hope in the Electors, then we should also believe in our House Representatives.
Already, as many as 30 Republican Electors have indicated that they may break their pledge and block a Trump presidency. It’s possible that you repressed the memory of Election Night altogether, but the results were 306 electoral votes projected for Trump to Hillary’s 232. Math is hard, but that means that only 37 faithless electoral votes are required to change the outcome. Only seven more to go…
As more and more Republican Electors lose their faith, they find themselves in legal limbo. Thanks to a new organization, any Elector who abandons their pledge to vote for Trump will be offered pro bono legal services to deal with the fall out. And there are numerous calls for fundraising efforts to pay inevitable fines—though, most of which are pretty minimal.
If I'm being honest with myself, we will probably see a President Trump at the end of the day given the House's ultimate involvement. But it won't go down without a fight that would make Hamilton super proud. And if the Electoral College fails us and doesn’t function to prevent the election of a demagogue, maybe it’s time to reconsider the process all together. After all, Hillary is leading the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes. Maybe it’s time to trust the People to speak for themselves?