When Donald Trump won the presidential election in November, some liberals and activists had a cool-sounding idea. What if, they mused, they could in fact block his win through the Electoral College, which actually casts the ballots that will officially make Trump president?
But when the electors gathered across the country Monday, this plot backfired embarrassingly — more electors defected from Hillary Clinton than from Trump.
Overall, Clinton lost five electors from states she won — three of whom instead cast their votes for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of whom voted for Bernie Sanders, and the other of whom voted for Faith Spotted Eagle, an activist involved in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Meanwhile, three electors in other states Clinton won attempted to defect from her, but two were replaced with Clinton-supporting alternates and the other one changed his mind after a revote.
Now, these defections won’t have any effect on the outcome, since Trump had a comfortable majority of pledged electors. All but two of the GOP nominee’s electors stuck by him, giving him 304 electoral votes in total. (One defector backed Ron Paul; the other backed John Kasich.)
But that doesn’t mean the Electoral College system is sound. Instead, Monday’s shenanigans further spotlight the glaring weaknesses in our country’s bizarre, anachronistic Electoral College system that have long been evident.
The record number of defections for the modern era — there hasn’t been more than one faithless elector in any one election in the past century — proves that the Electoral College isn’t a system that can be relied on to accurately reflect the will of voters in the states. And yet it also isn’t a system where electors feel completely free to make up their own minds.
What we actually have is a system in which the vast majority of electors vote in accordance with state outcomes — except for essentially random defections by little-known, idiosyncratic people who happen to have won elector slots. And that is a system that’s badly vulnerable to a very serious crisis.
How the Electoral College works
When the dust settled after the presidential election last month, it looked like Donald Trump had won 306 electoral votes and Hillary Clinton had won 232.
But in the US’s bizarre presidential election system, things aren’t so simple. What had actually technically happened was that a slate of people were elected in each state — the Electoral College. Those 538 people then had to cast those ballots for president, which is what happened this Monday.
The fact that the electors are people has, in the modern era, been mainly a bit of entertaining trivia of little importance. They’ve been expected to vote in accordance with the outcome of the elections in their respective states, and the overwhelming majority of them have done so. Many states have even passed laws “binding” their electors to vote in accordance with the statewide outcome.
Yet some electors have instead gone their own way. Before 2016, Richard Berg-Andersson listed nine electors who went rogue, refusing to vote for their state’s choice for president, in the past century. They’ve been dubbed “faithless electors.” None of them have swung a presidential outcome. And in at least the past century there was never more than one faithless elector in any given year.
But this year, some liberals unhappy with Trump’s victory and fearful of his presidency latched onto the idea of an Electoral College revolt as a potential way he could be blocked from the presidency.
As I wrote recently, this effort was “almost certainly doomed” and “essentially a call for destroying American democracy.” I also argued that despite the high-minded rhetoric about what the Founding Fathers would have wanted, it was also “essentially an attempt to steal an election that Trump fairly won.”
Others disagreed, the hot take factory went to work, and stories and videos giving liberals false hope that Trump could still be stopped went viral across the internet.
What happened in this year’s Electoral College vote
Yet when the electors actually convened in the 50 state capitals and the District of Columbia on Monday, it was in fact Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, who ended up losing more support.
Earlier, in Washington state, four of the 12 Democratic electors refused to vote for Hillary Clinton. Instead, three voted for former Secretary of State Colin Powell and one for Faith Spotted Eagle, an environmental activist. According to Washington state law, these electors were pledged to vote for Clinton, so they may face fines of $1,000 each for refusing to do so.
Meanwhile, the three Powell votes were cast as part of an effort from a group called the Hamilton Electors to throw their support to a moderate Republican, in hopes that some Trump-pledged electors would follow.
This effort failed dismally. Only two Trump electors, both from Texas, defected, with one voting for John Kasich and the other for Ron Paul. The other 304 stayed loyal to Trump, which put him well above the 270 electoral votes he needed for victory.
Furthermore, three Democratic electors in other states Clinton won tried to defect but were either replaced or convinced to change their minds:
- In Minnesota, Sanders-supporting Democratic elector Muhammad Abdurrahman reportedly refused to cast a vote, so according to state law, he was replaced with an alternate who did vote for Clinton.
- In Maine, Democratic elector David Bright voted for Bernie Sanders at first, but his vote was ruled out of order, and he switched it to Clinton during a revote.
- In Colorado, Democratic elector Michael Baca attempted to cast his vote for John Kasich (as part of the failed scheme to convince Trump electors to back a moderate Republican), but he was dismissed and replaced by an alternate, who voted for Clinton.
Theoretically, legal challenges could be launched related to some of these electoral votes, since the constitutionality of state laws binding electors has never truly been tested in the courts. But at least for the time being, they’re set to count for Clinton.
Overall, then, the count at the end of the day Monday was: 304 for Trump, 227 for Clinton, 3 for Colin Powell, and 1 each for Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Ron Paul, and Faith Spotted Eagle.
Why some electors ditched Clinton
The commonality among the Democratic faithless electors — both successful and attempted — is that they’re Bernie Sanders supporters.
Many Sanders supporters came out of left-wing protest politics rather than Democratic Party politics, and they’re not particularly interested in making Hillary Clinton or her party look good.
In Washington state, for instance, Bernie Sanders utterly dominated the caucuses, and his supporters therefore ended up being strongly represented at the state’s Democratic Party convention — the gathering that chose the state’s Democratic elector slate. The attempted faithless electors in Colorado, Minnesota, and Maine were also Sanders supporters from caucus states where Sanders won big, as was the faithless elector in Hawaii.
Funnily enough, the Hamilton Electors were hoping that tensions from the Republican primaries would remain and drive a significant number of electors to abandon Trump. But instead, the GOP is more united in victory than Democrats are in defeat.
Messing with democratic norms is a bad idea
Beyond being doomed, the push for an Electoral College revolt was always a bad and even dangerous idea, as I argued back in November:
For 180 years or so, our system has interpreted the results of the state elections as the Electoral College results. The campaigns are waged based on this understanding of the rules. The electors themselves have been rubber stamps. The popular vote has been irrelevant. Degrading those norms as part of a likely doomed effort to defeat Donald Trump is a bad idea. (For one, future rogue electors may not always vote the way you want — several historical rogue electors had racist motivations.)
Furthermore, electors overturning Trump particularly would certainly cause a constitutional crisis, because there is no world in which the Republican Party — who, again, control Congress — would accept Clinton taking the presidency in this way.
Now, it’s important to note that the Electoral College revolt effort got little institutional support in the Democratic Party. Still, the idea was wildly popular on social media. That’s even though it was an attempt from some liberals to ignore the commonly understood rules of the election to change an outcome they didn’t like in a way they’d find utterly outrageous if it happened to them.
Indeed, the only thing rogue electors ended up accomplishing was to degrade one more of the American political norms that have been so damaged by the 2016 election.
The problem is that a system where electors feel free to override the will of the people if they don’t like it — an idea idealized by many liberals who dreamed of a deus ex machina to block Trump from the White House — is also a system open to the somewhat random whims of those 538 people.
Progressives or liberals who are frightened by the Trump presidency should recognize that despite the weirdness of this election, it wasn’t rigged. Hillary Clinton could have won if she had managed to convince more people in just a few swing states to vote for her. Those who want to resist Donald Trump should focus instead on preparing for the reality of his presidency, and on trying to organize for future elections.