If you think 2016 will stop being weird come November 8, please look at your calendars: This whole election process actually lasts almost an additional two months beyond then, finally ending (probably) when Congress counts the electoral votes in early January. But just because it’s been a weird year, that doesn’t mean it has to end badly. There’s reason to hope.
Consider independent write-in candidate for president Evan McMullin. He has virtually no chance of winning the election on November 8, but he does have a shot at being chosen as our next president.
It’s a long shot. Very long. But if McMullin managed the greatest upset of all time, it would be a very good thing, and not just because so many of us would rather see someone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House.
McMullin, whom I’ve met several times, is an earnest, patriotic, and brave man who spent nearly a decade serving his country undercover in the CIA. He was until recently the chief policy director of the House Republican Conference. He would not be my first choice for president under normal circumstances. But that horse long ago left the barn — and then got hit by a truck.
The McMullin scenario works like this: If no candidate manages to win 270 electoral votes, the electors — i.e., the people who cast electoral votes on December 19 — will have handed the whole thing over to the House of Representatives to decide, as they did in the election of 1824.
Under the Twelfth Amendment, members of the House then must choose from the top three finishers in the Electoral College. So even if Libertarian Gary Johnson gets more of the popular vote than McMullin does, he’s not likely to have any electors because he won’t win any state. Meanwhile, polls show McMullin surging in his home state of Utah, where his fellow Mormons — God bless ’em — are particularly repulsed by Trump. If McMullin wins there, he’s got a ticket to the Electoral College Ball.
So if Clinton and Trump fall short of the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch — admittedly a huge “if,” given that projections show Clinton grabbing as many as 341 electoral votes — the decision goes to the new House of Representatives, which will be elected next month. The House will likely remain Republican, but less so than it is now. Also key in this scenario: Each state votes as a single bloc — so California and Rhode Island get one vote each.
Picking the least objectionable option is often the essence of statesmanship.
I think I can skip a few steps and just assert that many representatives will refuse to vote for Trump or Clinton.
But what about McMullin? Here, the vanilla rule might apply. Vanilla is one of the most popular flavors in America not because it’s everyone’s favorite, but because it is the least objectionable to the greatest number of people. There are probably no Democrats who wouldn’t prefer McMullin to Trump. There are almost certainly no Republicans who wouldn’t prefer McMullin to Clinton. Picking the least objectionable option is often the essence of statesmanship. If 26 state delegations pick the least-bad option, McMullin becomes the first Mormon president.
Some would complain that this isn’t very democratic. So what?
By our contemporary standards, the Founding Fathers distrusted democracy too much. But they had good reasons. If you think all questions should be settled democratically, let’s scrap the Bill of Rights, which elevates our most fundamental priorities out of the reach of voters pretty much forever.
Sometimes democracy steers us in bad directions. For the Founders, the solution to such wrong turns wasn’t despotism, but constitutionalism — and, when required, statesmanship. Imagine that in the next few days there is another scandalous WikiLeaks dump involving Clinton and another devastating revelation about Trump that truly disqualify both from higher office — but they still get millions more votes than McMullin because of early voting and blind partisanship.
Personally, I wouldn’t mind if the Electoral College rejected them both and just picked McMullin as a matter of conscience. But let’s say they toss the decision to the House. The statesmanlike (and bipartisan) option is the least-bad alternative in a terrible situation, and arguably more democratic, because while fewer people will get their first choice, more people will get their second. Providing such an alternative is why McMullin decided to run for president in the first place.
Obviously, the election experts are 99.99 percent sure this scenario will never come to pass. The only reason for hope: 2016 laughs at the experts.