CHICAGO – 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 U.S. president.
Normally sedate affairs that pass with little notice, this year’s proceedings have been injected with a bit of drama and a dash of uncertainty with an unprecedented campaign by a small group of electors to overturn the results of Election Day.
The attempt to deny Donald Trump the presidency by trying to convince 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” in a video that outlines the group’s goals. “If only 37 Republican electors change their vote, Donald Trump will not have the 270 electoral votes he needs to be president,” he says. “Thirty-seven patriots can save this country.”
Chiafalo and others who have joined 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 Barack Obama directed U.S. intelligence agencies to deliver a report on Russian hacking of Democratic Party emails, and the Washington Post reported that the CIA concluded the meddling was intended to benefit Trump.
Those developments have prompted 56 electors – all but one of them Democrats in states Democrat Hillary Clinton won – to sign onto 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 – almost a quarter of the Democrats forming this year’s Electoral College – have 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 potential alternatives.
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.
“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 Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
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 the billionaire businessman’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 as the party’s standard-bearer. Unlike at the convention, 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.
House was one of those in a Denver courtroom Monday where two Colorado electors lost their bid to be free from a state requirement that they cast their ballots for presidential and vice-presidential candidates based on the results of the general election. The two Democratic electors, in a state Clinton won, have said they think Trump is unfit for office and have sought to encourage his electors in other states to vote their conscience.
The quirky institution was created by the nation’s founders as a compromise between those who favored a direct popular vote and those who wanted lawmakers to pick the president. This year, Trump won the popular vote in 30 states that have 306 electoral votes, 36 more than the 270 needed to win. Clinton carried 20 states and the District of Columbia with 232 electors.
One of the drivers for the attempt to negate the Electoral College result is that by running up big margins in populous states like California and New York, Clinton beat Trump by at least 2.8 million ballots in the nationwide popular vote. That’s the largest gap for a candidate who didn’t win the White House. Clinton is only the fifth presidential candidate in U.S. history to win the popular vote and finish second in electoral votes, joining Andrew Jackson in 1824, Samuel Tilden in 1876, Grover Cleveland in 1888 and Al Gore in 2000.
The Electoral College is more popular with Republicans than Democrats. A Bloomberg National Poll earlier this month found that 54 percent of American adults say the president should be picked by the popular vote, a number that jumps to 80 percent among Democrats and those who lean that way. Among Republicans and those who lean that way, 68 percent back the Electoral College.