Why The Electoral College Revolt Was Doomed

There was much ado about the Hamilton Electors, a pack of Electoral College Electors trying to get the College to elect a Republican alternative to Trump.

December 19th came and went, and of 538 electors, only 7 went faithless--5 of those were pledged to Clinton. Trump picked up 304 of 306 pledged, handily winning the presidency. 

Despite unprecedented public support and pressure, the Hamilton Elector movement went out with a mighty fizzle. 

What Was the Idea?

The idea was simple: the Electoral College was not originally designed as a simple rubber-stamp to how the states voted. When the Electoral College was created, it was given the power to actually elect whoever they wanted: legally, they didn't have to vote for anyone that won the pledges from the state's popular vote.

Was this just a legal fluke? Absolutely not: if we look to the Federalist Papers, we see that the College was very specifically created in order to use their judgment to elect a president fit for the office. To quote Alexander Hamilton in Federalist no 68, the College was built to ensure

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,

chosen

by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice."

The US was built as a Republic rather than a Democracy, and the Electoral College was specifically part of that system. 

The idea for the Hamilton Electors was that they would take on that role--for the first time--and choose a president that did not win the greatest number of pledged Electors during the national vote. It looked like the consensus was forming around John Kasich.

We talk at greater length about the origins, purpose, and structure of the Electoral College in our podcast episode, if you want to learn more. 

Why Didn't it Work?

In a word, "norms," I think. 

One can read specific stories about how dissenting electors were forced out or pressured to resign. Some resigned because they weren't willing to vote for Trump but didn't want to be faithless. Some electors would have faced fines if they had gone "faithless" (that is, voted for someone other than who they were pledged).  Each of those stories is interesting. 

But at the end of the day, the norm for the Electoral College is to rubber-stamp whoever won the pledged electors. The Electoral College has never overturned how the states voted, and the idea of it suddenly doing so is so radical that it's almost absurd--even though they have the legal power to do so.

Even in the early 1800s, the norm for the Electoral College was established: if one party's candidate won the November election, those parties made sure they selected electors who would vote for the party candidate. Not particularly surprising.

But this has been going on for 200 years. Unlike Hamilton's original design, electors have never deliberated for long periods over the President--they have merely been a rubber-stamp.

To change now would be hard: other players and forces within the system expect them to be a rubber-stamp, and to overturn that would be, at this point, almost a usurpation of the system. They would assume power that they technically have, but it would have in effect been a major change to a US system that has in reality been an odd form of national vote. 

Other Norms--Broken and Not

Norms in government are broken fairly rarely. This is kindof obvious, as they're called "norms." But they are generally very hard to overcome, and forces in governments tend to emerge to keep them static.

In the US, one good example is that until FDR, it was only a norm not to run for a 3rd presidential term. FDR ran for a 3rd term in the middle of the Great Depression and beginning of the 2nd World War, and after that, the US passed a Constitutional Amendment to stop that from happening.

The President also has the power to veto any bill (which can be overturned by a 2/3 majority from Congress), but the norm is that this is used somewhat rarely. When Andrew Jackson used it too often, it was considered somewhat tyrannical. 

What's a bit amazing is how much norms actually matter in government. Many parts of government have the technical legal power to do many things, but norms keep these bodies from doing them too often or at all. The norms are sometimes set as precedent immediately, and sometimes emerge over time--the Electoral College is an example of the second.

In the end, the movement to get the Electoral College to overturn the pledging from the national Vote was probably doomed: it was just too big a norm to overturn, too suddenly, for there to be any real mechanism in place to bring it about and overcome institutional resistance. 

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.