The Electoral College’s 538 members gather Monday at 50 state capitols to cast the ballots that matter the most when it comes to electing a president.
Normally sedate affairs, this year’s proceedings have been injected with a bit of drama: A small group of electors has waged an unprecedented campaign to overturn the Election Day results.
The attempt to deny Donald Trump the presidency by trying to persuade Democratic and Republican peers to back someone else is almost sure to fail. But it injects still more rancor in what already has been a divisive political season and serves as a capstone for a 2016 presidential election that will go down as one of the oddest in U.S. history.
Behind the drive is a group calling itself Hamilton Electors, led by two Democratic electors from western states. The name is a nod to Alexander Hamilton and his explanation of the need for the Electoral College, an entity the first U.S. Treasury secretary said existed to make sure that “the office of the president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
Bret Chiafalo, an Electoral College member from Washington state who is a Hamilton Electors organizer, calls the institution the nation’s “emergency brake.”
37 GOP electors needed
“If only 37 Republican electors change their vote, Donald Trump will not have the 270 electoral votes he needs to be president,” he said. “Thirty-seven patriots can save this country.”
Chiafalo and others who support the effort want the Electoral College returned to what they say is its original concept: a deliberative body that uses the popular vote as a guide.
The turmoil among electors was stirred last week after President Obama directed U.S. intelligence agencies to deliver a report on Russian hacking of Democratic Party e-mails; the CIA concluding the meddling was intended to benefit Trump.
Those developments have prompted 56 electors — all but one of them Democrats in states Hillary Clinton won — to sign a letter requesting a briefing about the hacking. Some Democrats have also called for the Electoral College voting to be pushed back until more is known, something that would take an act of Congress.
None of the 56 — nearly a quarter of the Democrats forming this year’s Electoral College — has necessarily joined in the call for Republican electors to back a consensus candidate that Republican and Democratic electors might support.
That doesn’t have to be Clinton. Members of the Hamilton Electors have mentioned former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Ohio Gov. John Kasich as possibilities.
Yet another effort to persuade electors is playing out in full-page newspaper ads this week in states that voted for Trump. Paid for by an online fundraising drive started by a California man opposed to Trump, the ads call for electors to reject Trump because he would “present a grave and continual threat to the Constitution, to the domestic tranquility, and to international stability.”
There’s no constitutional requirement that binds electors to the candidates who won their state, but most are required to do so under state laws. That’s never mattered or been seriously tested because there have been few cases of so-called “faithless electors” — the last occurrence was in 2004.
‘A long shot’
“That’s never happened for a live candidate ever before,” said George Edwards III, a Texas A&M University political science professor who has studied the Electoral College. “It’s very much a long shot.”
Edwards said he stressed “live candidate” because in 1872 Democratic candidate Horace Greeley died after a landslide election loss to incumbent Ulysses S. Grant, before the Electoral College met. Three electors who still voted for Greeley had their ballots invalidated because their candidate, obviously, could not serve in office.
If the effort to flip 37 Republican electors were to succeed, it could send the final decision to the GOP-controlled House.
Trump supporters and Republican establishment figures say it’s all an academic conversation because there’s zero chance of success and is being pushed by Democrats as a way to undermine Trump’s legitimacy for the office.
“There are some people who will just not let go,” said John Hammond, a Republican National Committee member from Indiana. “It will be a fruitless effort.”
The goal of trying to block Trump at the Electoral College has some similarities to a failed bid to persuade enough delegates to the Republican National Convention in July to block his nomination. Unlike then, the electors are spread across the country.
“I know people are getting a plethora of calls,” said Steve House, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “I also suspect many people are going to be pushing as much bad news as possible about Trump this week.”
While calling the lobbying effort “massive,” House also predicts total failure. “There may be a few defectors, maybe six or seven, who are bound to Donald Trump who may not vote for him, but I don’t think it will alter the outcome,” he said.