State Politics

Trump opponents' campaign to beat him at the Electoral College is a long shot

Melinda Smyser, one of Idaho’s four presidential electors, outside the state Capitol in Boise on Nov. 17.
Melinda Smyser, one of Idaho’s four presidential electors, outside the state Capitol in Boise on Nov. 17. The Associated Press

Grass-roots campaigns have sprung up around the country to try to persuade members of the Electoral College to do something that has never been done in American history — deny the presidency to the clear Election Day winner.

Activists are circulating online petitions and using social media in hopes of influencing Republican electors to cast their ballots for someone other than President-elect Donald Trump and deprive him of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to become the next occupant of the White House.

“Yes, I think it’s a long shot, but I also think we’re living in strange times,” said Daniel Brezenoff, who created a petition in favor of Hillary Clinton and is asking signers to lobby electors by email or phone. “If it was ever plausible, it’s this year.”

Trump has won 290 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232, with Michigan undecided, but Clinton is on pace to win the popular vote by at least 1 million ballots. Trump’s opponents are motivated by the outcome of the popular vote and by their contention that the businessman and reality TV star is unfit to serve as commander in chief.

Just one elector so far has wavered publicly on supporting Trump.

Texas Republican Art Sisneros says he has reservations about the president-elect, but not because of the national popular vote. He told The Associated Press he won’t vote for Trump under any circumstance.

“As a Christian, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Trump is not biblically qualified for that office,” he said.

He said he has heard from ecstatic Clinton supporters and even supportive Republicans, but also from outraged Trump backers writing “threatening and vile things.”

Sisneros signed a state party pledge to support the GOP’s standard-bearer, but that was before Trump was the official nominee. He said one of his options is to resign, allowing the state party to choose another elector.

Electors are chosen by party officials and are typically the party’s most loyal members. Presidential electors are not required to vote for a particular candidate under the Constitution. Even so, the National Archives says more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged throughout the nation’s history.

Some state laws call for fines against “faithless electors,” while others open them to possible felony charges, although the National Archives says no elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged. In North Carolina, a faithless elector’s vote is canceled, and he or she must immediately resign and be replaced.

Layne Bangerter and Melinda Smyser, two of Idaho’s four Republican electors, said they have been flooded with emails, telephone calls and Facebook messages from strangers urging them to reconsider their vote.

“It’s just not going to work,” Bangerter said. “I hope it dies down, but I don’t see that happening.”

The volume and tone of the messages caught the attention of Idaho’s secretary of state, who urged the public to remain civil as electors prepare to cast their ballots on Dec. 19 while meeting in their states.

Republican Party officials in Georgia and Michigan said their electors also have been bombarded with messages, and Iowa reported increased public interest in obtaining contact information for electors.

Michael Banerian, 22, one of Michigan’s 16 Republican electors, said he has received death threats from people who do not want him to vote for Trump. But he said he is undeterred.

“It’s mostly just a lot of angry people who don’t completely understand how the process works,” said Banerian, a political science major at Oakland University.

P. Bret Chiafalo, a Democratic elector in Washington state, said he and a small group of other electors from the party are working to contact their Republican counterparts and ask them to vote for any GOP candidate besides Trump, preferably Mitt Romney or John Kasich.

Under the Constitution, the House — currently under Republican control — decides the presidency if no candidate reaches the required electoral vote majority. House members choose from the top three contenders.

This isn’t the first time electors have faced pressure to undo the results of Election Day.

Carole Jean Jordan, a GOP elector from Florida in 2000, recalled the “unbelievably ugly” aftermath of the recount battle between George W. Bush and then-vice president Al Gore, a dispute that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court leaving Bush’s slim margin intact and handing him the presidency.

Jordan said Florida’s electors were inundated with nasty letters from people saying they should not vote for Bush. Police kept watch over her home until the electors convened in Tallahassee to cast their votes. They stayed at the same hotel, guarded by security officers who also escorted them to cast their ballots at the state Capitol.

Q&A: Electors almost always follow the vote in their state

Opponents of President-elect Donald Trump are trying to persuade Republican electors to vote against him next month. A primer on the Electoral College and the roles of electors:

Q: What is the Electoral College?

It’s the 538 Americans who actually elect the president. The number corresponds to the seats a state has in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, plus the three electoral votes allotted to Washington, D.C. The magic number is 270, the bare majority required to win the presidency.

Electors meet in their state capitals to cast their ballots; this year, that will be on Dec. 19.

Q: How can a candidate win the popular vote and not the Electoral College?

The national popular vote simply doesn’t matter. Electoral votes are instead awarded based on state-by-state results. Essentially, the U.S. holds 50 separate popular votes that determine an Electoral College vote count.

Q: How many times has a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election?

Hillary Clinton would be the fifth candidate in the nation’s history to fall into this dubious category. The others, according to the U.S. House: Andrew Jackson in 1824; Samuel Tilden in 1876; Grover Cleveland in 1888; and Al Gore in 2000.

Q: How did the Electoral College originate?

The Electoral College is an original feature of the Constitution. Some framers wanted popular election of the commander in chief. Many others didn’t trust the masses. The Electoral College was a compromise. Pegging a state’s electoral vote count to the size of its congressional delegation was a negotiated design, giving small states more influence proportionally than large states.

The same urban vs. rural, small state vs. large state battle is what explains the makeup of the U.S. Senate, where every state has two members.

Q: Do electors have to vote the way their state voted?

The Constitution is silent on this point, which suggests electors can go their own way. This is certainly the thinking behind petitions and a handful of Clinton electors urging Republican electors to abandon Trump.

In 29 states, there are either statutes or party rules that theoretically bind electors to honor state results. But the penalty for becoming a “faithless elector” is typically a fine measured in the hundreds of dollars. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled explicitly on those state laws and party rules, and some constitutional scholars say such state restrictions would be struck down were they ever challenged.

Q: Have there been “faithless electors” before?

The National Archives says that throughout the nation’s history more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged.

According to research by FairVote.org, a nonprofit group that advocates national popular vote elections for president, there have been just 157 “faithless electors.” That represents less than 1 percent of the total electoral votes cast in the nation’s history.

Only a handful of those have been in the modern era. The last publicly identified faithless elector was Barbara Lett-Simmons of Washington, D.C., in 2000.

A Gore elector, Lett-Simmons abstained as a public protest for her home city having no voting representation in Congress. According to news reporters, Lett-Simmons sought, and received, Gore’s permission for her act of defiance.

Q: What happens if no candidate receives the 270-vote majority?

Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives decides, with each state delegation casting a single vote for one of the top three vote-getters. Republicans control a majority of state delegations, so this route still benefits Trump.

The House has decided a presidential election only twice, in 1800 and 1824.

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