Every four years, people talk about the oddness of the Electoral College. And just like 2000's popular vote/Electoral College mismatch, after the 2016 election, some citizens attempted to flip electors from Donald Trump to either Hillary Clinton or a third candidate (if enough electors go to the third candidate, the House would then have to choose from among the top three).
Which leads to the question: Can the Electoral College actually change the results of the election? It’s an awkwardly worded question for a very specific reason, and the answer is no. But for the question people think that they’re asking—could the Electoral College reverse the results of the election?—the answer is yes, although it’s profoundly unlikely.
The reason it’s an oddly worded question is that the November election is not a vote for president. The vote is for a set of electors who will then go and vote for the president in December. Therefore, the electors cannot change the results of the election since they’re the ones being elected. In one of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton explained the reasoning for forgoing direct democracy, as well as why they avoided letting politicians make the decision. Largely, the problem was that neither the public nor the politicians could be trusted. Hamilton wrote:
“The Executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence. This advantage will also be secured, by making his re-election to depend on a special body of representatives, deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice.”
There were other issues the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid as well, such as the risk of a smorgasbord of regional candidates. As historian Jack Rakove told Stanford News in 2012, “it would become truly difficult to produce a popular majority with a field of favorite sons.”
More controversially, the Founding Fathers faced the issue of slavery. Because enslaved people couldn’t vote, a direct popular vote would weaken the power of the South. Thanks to the three-fifths compromise, however, the slave states had greater power under an electoral system than under a direct voting system, because enslaved people couldn’t vote but did count for the number of representatives. And more representatives meant more electors (the number of electors equals the state’s number of representatives plus the number of senators). As James Madison said in 1787:
“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”
But objections to the elector’s powers appeared as soon as races got competitive. In 1796, Pennsylvanian Samuel Miles became the first known faithless elector when, despite being chosen as a Federalist, he voted for opposition candidate Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to the Gazette of the United States, a disgruntled Pennsylvania voter asked, “What, do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No! I choose him to act, not to think.”
SO WOULD IT WORK?
As we have written about before, in about half the states plus Washington, D.C., electors are required to vote for their state’s popular vote winner—some states to the point that any attempt to defy this would forfeit the elector’s position. They’re extreme, but in the controversial 1952 Ray v. Blair case, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring pledges from electors to vote for a particular candidate was constitutional. But the question that remains unanswered is whether any punishment for breaking those pledges is constitutional. It’s never mattered, but would quickly become a critical issue if electors defected en masse.
Regarding the 2016 election, others say that because Hillary Clinton had already conceded, this strategy wouldn’t have worked. But there’s no requirement that an elector vote for a viable candidate. In 1976, one of the electors voted for Ronald Reagan, who hadn’t even won his party’s primary. In 1956, another elector voted for a local circuit court judge rather than Adlai Stevenson.
A stronger issue standing in the way is how electors are chosen. Generally, in spring and summer, each state’s political parties nominate a slate of electors from a list of party faithful. Any attempt to get defections would require electors to go against a party that chose them specifically for their loyalty.
The Ray v. Blair decision gave one of the most famous dissents in Supreme Court history, where Justice Jackson wrote, “No one faithful to our history can deny that the plan originally contemplated, what is implicit in its text, that electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the men best qualified for the Nation's highest offices.” While it would be considered highly irregular and is highly unlikely, the possibility is there. And will remain there until January 6, 2021, when the votes are officially counted before a joint session of Congress.
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