Politics & Policy

Use the Electoral College Properly or Lose It

North Carolina’s electors rehearse for the official vote in Raleigh, December 18, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Drake)
An elector’s job is not to inspire disappointed activists. It’s to maintain public trust in the electoral system.

Maine Democratic elector David Bright announced Monday morning that he would vote for Senator Bernie Sanders in the Electoral College.

He told the Portland Press-Herald that his vote would send a meaningful message to the thousands of new voters who enrolled as Democrats to support Sanders.

“The very least I can do is tell these new voters, ‘Look, somebody did listen to you. I want you to know that politics is hard, democracy is messy, and sometimes you lose elections, but you need to stay in there,’” Bright said.

Is it the job of an elector to send a reassuring or encouraging message to discouraged activists? More than 354,000 Maine voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton, with the full expectation that Democratic electors would give her their votes if she won the state and its electoral districts. Don’t they deserve some encouragement, too? Just what kind of a message will they hear when they learn that Bright decided to ignore their ballots and vote for Sanders?

As Samuel Goldwyn said, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” The Constitution and federal law give the states a lot of latitude on selecting electors. But there’s a reason those electors who violate their pledge are called “faithless,” their names and number recorded in history: The system works only if voters have confidence that their ballots will matter, and voters can have confidence that their ballots will matter only if electors remain faithful.

After successfully campaigning for the job of Republican elector when Donald Trump was the lone remaining GOP presidential candidate, Texas’s Chris Suprun now says he won’t vote for Trump because he’s decided the GOP nominee is unqualified. He has indicated in past interviews an interest in casting a ballot for Ohio governor John Kasich. In Washington, Democratic elector Robert Satiacum said before the election he would vote for Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton no matter what.

The prospect of a Trump presidency has triggered other electors to violate their pledges, or contemplate doing so, as well. Two of Satiacum’s fellow Washington Democratic electors, Bret Chiafalo and Levi Guerra, announced an interest in voting for a Republican alternative to Trump. Three Democratic electors in Colorado filed an emergency request to suspend a state law that requires electors to vote for the candidate who won the state. A federal appeals court denied the request. (One of the great ironies of the brouhaha about “faithless electors” this year is that Hillary Clinton may lose more votes than Trump does; more Democratic electors than Republican ones have expressed a public interest in voting for someone besides her.)

Voters can have confidence that their ballots will matter only if electors remain faithful.

For the last week, American politics has been entirely preoccupied with the apparent fact that Russian hackers, under orders from the Kremlin, engaged in a criminal campaign to undermine public faith in America’s system of elections and possibly to help Trump win the White House. Just what will happen when those such as Sanders and Kasich, who didn’t win their parties’ nominations and weren’t even on the ballot, get electoral votes because they’re more appealing to individual electors? How much faith do Hillary-backing Maine Democrats have in the system right now?

Our elections run on trust. These faithless electors have publicly pledged to support a nominee and in some cases signed written pledges. Once the election results were in and it was too late for them to be removed from their positions as electors, they announced that they intended to vote for someone different. If this phenomenon becomes more common every four years, people will justifiably ask whether their vote matters at all. There will be efforts to increase the punishment of faithless electors, but that’s an after-the-fact consequence unlikely to deter someone sufficiently narcissistic that he takes relish in ignoring the will of their states’ voters.

Can we imagine a scenario in which a president-elect proves so spectacularly unqualified and dangerous to the Republic that the electors need to save the American electorate from its own bad judgment? Sure. But that sort of extraordinary measure ought to be reserved for extraordinary circumstances, not just a temper tantrum over the Clinton campaign’s hubris that the upper Midwest was solidly blue. Our system of democracy offers almost unlimited opportunities to speak one’s mind and “send a message.” Why must these electors turn the Electoral College process into one more soapbox?

#related#Many Democrats have grumbled about the Electoral College ever since the 2000 election but lament that passing a constitutional amendment is just too hard. This year’s faithless electors may do some of the heavy lifting for them. Voters won’t long tolerate a system in which hard-fought efforts to win the most votes in a state are undone retroactively because unknown party activists have a personal change of heart or want to send a message.

The Electoral College is a wise concept, designed to ensure that each state has value in the election and save the country from the nightmare scenario of a razor-thin margin triggering a nationwide recount. But it works only if everyone involved acts with integrity, including the electors. It’s easier to trust 538 fellow citizens if they keep their word or resign when they feel they cannot keep it in good conscience, as one anti-Trump Texas elector did. But if enough members of that group of 538 are narcissists who get a thrill from defying the public’s will, public faith in American elections will crumble, and it won’t be the fault of Vladimir Putin’s thugs.

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