17 November 2020

How Trump's Plan to Send a Slate of Faithless Electors Could End the Electoral College

The official count of the 2016 election: Trump won 304 electoral votes and Clinton won 227, for a total of 531.

This is not what they won on election night, though. Trump actually won 306 and Clinton won 232, for a total of 538.

What happened to the missing 7? They were stolen by faithless electors.

A faithless elector is someone who is supposed to cast votes for the presidential candidate who won their states' electoral votes but chooses instead to cast votes for someone else. The official number of electoral votes Trump and Clinton received was diminished by 2 faithless electors who chose not to vote for Trump and 5 who chose not to vote for Clinton. Curiously, this didn't change the outcome and thus got little attention.

One of the strategies Trump has explored in his desperate desire not to be a loser is to have Republican legislative bodies in states he lost send a slate of faithless electors to vote for him rather than Biden. He's exploring that option, essentially a veto of the state's voters.

We've had weird electoral vote outcomes before.

The 1800 election came down to a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Each won 73 electoral votes. Over the course of seven days the House cast 35 ballots but each failed to break the tie. Before the 36th vote, Alexander Hamilton intervened on Jefferson's behalf (Hamilton disliked Jefferson but despised Burr), tipping the House ballot towards Jefferson who then became the nation's third president. Burr, who took this personally, challenged Hamilton to a duel and (spoiler alert) killed him.

If faithless electors did vote for Trump after a majority of the voters in their state voted for Biden, it could trigger a crisis.

But it could be a crisis that triggers change. (Or effectively ends democracy. One takes one's chances in times of momentous change.) Once people realize that it is not their vote but the electors' that determines who becomes president, once they're shown so clearly that the electoral college is only by tradition - and not by law - expected to vote for the candidate their state has voted for, it could be just the catalyst needed to amend the constitution again to change how we vote for president.
After the 1800 election in which Jefferson beat Burr, the US passed the 12th amendment. This changed how presidents were elected so that a fiasco like the one that led to Jefferson and Burr's perpetual tie would not happen again. The kind of crisis that Trump is trying to trigger could be yet another catalyst for a change, this time to change the rules so that voters directly elect the president without electoral college intermediaries who - as it turns out - are bound by faith and not by law to vote for the candidate they were sent to vote for.

Is this a far-fetched scenario? Most definitely.

Could it nonetheless happen? 2020 is nothing if not a reminder that reality is unbounded by our expectations of normal.

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