A Republican elector from Texas announced Monday that he would refuse to cast his Electoral College vote for Donald Trump.
Christopher Suprun, a paramedic from Texas, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that he could not support “someone who shows daily he is not qualified for the office.” He continues: “Fifteen years ago, I swore an oath to defend my country and Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. On Dec. 19, I will do it again.”
Suprun writes that instead of backing Hillary Clinton or Trump, electors from both parties “should unify behind a Republican alternative, an honorable and qualified man or woman such as Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.” This is in line with a strategy that has been pushed by some Democratic electors in recent days. According to Politico’s Kyle Cheney and Gabriel Debenedetti, eight are on board, and they’re likely to unify behind Kasich as their alternative choice.
Yet the effort remains very far short of the numbers it would need for success. In addition to Suprun, 36 other GOP electors slated to vote for Trump would have to desert him to put him under 270 electoral votes and deprive him of the majority needed to win.
Furthermore, if no candidate gets 270 electoral votes, the election would be thrown to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to decide. And Republican representatives will surely feel immense pressure to go along with the will of their voters, and make Trump president.
How the Electoral College works
All these shenanigans are possible because when Trump and Clinton won states on Election Day, the practical result was that they won slots for electors in those states. For instance, Trump’s win in Alaska meant the Republican Party’s nominated elector slate there — former Gov. Sean Parnell, Jacqueline Tupou, and Carolyn Leman — officially became Alaska’s three electors. This process repeated itself across the country, resulting in the selection of the 538 electors.
On December 19, the electors will cast their votes for president in their respective states. But while in the modern era this ceremonial occasion has been a formality that reiterates the results of statewide votes, it seems to be at least technically possible that electors could instead defy their states and vote for whomever they choose.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 30 of the 50 states have passed laws "binding" their electors to vote in accordance with the presidential popular vote in their state. But in most, the penalty for not doing so is only a fine, and it’s unclear whether stiffer penalties would hold up in court — it’s never been tested, and the Constitution does appear to give the electors the right to make the final call. Furthermore, there are still 20 or so states that haven’t even tried to bind their electors.
This isn’t just theoretical. Richard Berg-Andersson lists nine electors who have indeed gone “rogue” and refused to support their state’s presidential choice in the past 100 years. Their votes were all counted as cast, though there have never been sufficient numbers of them to overturn a presidential election result.
- In 1837, rogue electors from Virginia briefly blocked the seating of the vice president-elect because they were offended that he had a mixed-race common-law wife. (The Senate overrode them.)
- A Democratic elector from Tennessee cast his ballot for segregationist third-party candidate Strom Thurmond in 1948, and a Republican elector from North Carolina voted for segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace in 1968.
- In 2000, an elector from Washington, DC, withheld an electoral vote from Al Gore, because she wanted to protest the fact that DC didn’t have representation in Congress.
- Perhaps most bizarrely of all, in 2004, an elector from Minnesota who was supposed to vote for John Kerry for president instead voted for John Edwards. (It’s believed that this was an accident, but since the votes were cast anonymously, we don’t really know for sure. Great system!)
Hoo boy, would this be playing with fire
Many people disappointed in the outcome of the 2016 election have seized on the Electoral College as the last hope of preventing Trump from becoming president (well, now that they’ve finally accepted that Jill Stein’s recounts won’t change the outcome). Accordingly, many articles related to Electoral College defections have gone viral in liberal social media circles.
Furthermore, some commentators, like Peter Beinart, have argued that if electors blocked Trump, they’d be fulfilling the Constitution’s framers’ intentions. “The electors, [Alexander] Hamilton believed, would prevent someone with ‘talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity’ from becoming president,” Beinart writes. “The founders created the Electoral College, in other words, in part to prevent the election of someone like Donald Trump.”
Yet 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 popular vote has been understood to be irrelevant to the outcome. And the electors are no longer notable citizens chosen for their good judgment— they’re people chosen by state parties in the hopes that they’ll be rubber stamps.
So essentially, these little-noticed 538 people chosen mainly to fulfill a ceremonial role would be taking it upon themselves to nullify the outcome an election in which 129 million people voted, and make someone who wasn’t even on the ballot the president of the United States. It would lead American democracy into truly uncharted territory.