Analysts expected Democrats to win the presidential election, with models based on state polls predicting an 85 percent chance of victory. But Republicans won an Electoral College majority even while losing the popular vote. Democrats called for recounts, researchers questioned voting systems, and activists lobbied electors to change their votes.
The year was 2000, with George W. Bush beating Al Gore for the presidency, but it has several parallels to this year's election.
That year, I was part of the first online effort to lobby Electoral College members in an effort to sway their votes. My college roommate, David Enrich, had founded a virtual political reform organization called Citizens for True Democracy, which advocated the abolition of the Electoral College. Before the election, David and I were the only two "citizens" behind the effort.
Even as college students, we saw the 2000 election as our opportunity to push reform. In the week following the election, we circulated a petition to abolish the Electoral College, lobbied Congress, and — most controversially — collected contact information for electors pledged to George W. Bush nationwide.
Our effort, eventually renamed VoteWithAmerica.com, included names, home and office phone numbers, and addresses for most Bush electors. We offered online calling, sample call scripts, and downloadable mail merge files. With the click of a button, visitors could also mass email or fax electors in many states.
We failed to sway the electors, but not for lack of trying
Newspapers reported that electors began receiving a flood of communication. Florida electors received the most attention. But Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a 2000 elector for Bush, even appeared on Fox News to complain about constant calls to his office. We had no trouble generating media attention and stimulating action from disaffected Democrats, but did not convince any Republican electors to switch their votes. That year had only one faithless elector, a Democrat protesting Washington, DC's lack of congressional representation.
But political scientist Robert Alexander claims our efforts were not entirely in vain. We started a tradition of lobbying the electors, which has continued in every election since 2000. In his book Presidential Electors and the Electoral College: An Examination of Lobbying, Wavering Electors, and Campaigns for Faithless Votes, Alexander surveys presidential electors and finds that more than one in 10 considered changing their vote. Electors were surprisingly open to arguments to switch, though our central message (that electors should support the winner of the national popular vote) was not their highest priority. Instead, they were especially attentive to claims of election fraud or error; they wanted to voice the true preferences of their state.
Our argument may have been more persuasive if it had been taken up by the Gore campaign, but they were focused on the Florida recount. Before the 2000 election, the Bush campaign — believing they were more likely to win the popular vote in a split with the Electoral College — actively considered lobbying electors to switch.
That does not mean you should expect a surprise on December 19, when 2016 presidential electors will gather at state capitols to officially select the president. The reason we were able to find contact information for so many electors is because they are often prominent political party officials, former candidates or elected officials, or major party donors. They are selected precisely for their commitment to the party.
In 2000, we only needed three electors to switch their votes to give Al Gore the presidency. Hillary Clinton would need 37, and there is no sign she will get anywhere close.
Nonetheless, the campaign to lobby the electors is in full swing. A group of Democratic electors is demanding intelligence briefings and asking Republican electors to select a different candidate, even voicing a willingness to combine their votes in support of a Republican. One Republican elector has said he will not support Donald Trump, and others have resigned because they were unwilling to vote for him. Online systems again enable activists to contact electors to lobby them to change their votes. Larry Lessig has volunteered to defend faithless electors who violate state laws in court and claims that 20 electors are considering defecting.
Despite the uphill battle, I support efforts to sway the electors. Raising awareness about the Electoral College, especially the role of actual electors in casting votes for president and the ability of states to determine how these electors are selected, is a critical first step to reform. The electors are free, under the Constitution, to determine the president. I see no reason why they should put the will of their state's voters over the will of the nation's voters.
The prospects for Electoral College reform
This year's efforts are unlikely to succeed and probably will not stimulate reforms of the Electoral College. Political reform efforts after 2000 focused on providing funds for new voting machines and better election administration to avoid a replay of the Florida debacle over hanging chads. An interstate compact to have electors support the winner of the national popular vote has since moved forward and been enacted in 11 Democratic states. But given that Republicans have won the Electoral vote twice while losing the popular vote, generating Republican state support for a national popular vote will be difficult.
The anachronistic Electoral College has certainly demonstrated its potential for upheaval. The system will now have elected candidates who lost the national popular vote twice out of the past five elections. Several faithless electors have used their position to pursue quixotic protests. Democratic electors from Washington threatened not to support Clinton before this year's election, and their support could have been decisive. Because there are 538 electors (an even number), many ties are possible that would send future presidential elections to the House of Representatives — even without a third-party candidate winning a state.
The Electoral College also provides incentives for norm-busting political parties to game the system. The campaign for the election of 1800, in fact, included several battles to determine whether legislatures or referendums would determine elector selection.
To this day, states still determine how their electors are selected. In 2000, the Florida legislature nearly passed a law declaring that a slate of electors pledged to Bush would represent the state — a move likely permissible under the Constitution for any state, before or after an election. Recent moves in other states sought to alter the rules of elector selection to benefit the party that controlled the state legislature, such as by switching from winner-take-all to congressional district or proportional allocation.
In short, the system is not a good method of determining the winner of the presidency. Most countries have long ago discarded similar presidential selection mechanisms. Even Donald Trump, the latest beneficiary of the system, still favors reform.