How to Hack the Electoral College... and Its Implications

So let's assume for now that both Clinton and Trump will be the nominees. 

Fivethirtyeight pointed out that they're the two most disliked candidates to run for office pollsters have been asking that question with current polling methods. 

(Interestingly, being strongly disliked might just be a sign that you're polarizing rather than reviled: in the past 8 elections, only twice has the less-disliked candidate managed to win: Clinton and GW Bush.)

This fact has some people thinking about getting an alternative into office. Some folks have been talking about getting someone like Michael Bloomberg into office. The Libertarians are hoping to snipe a bunch of disgruntled Republicans. Bernie fans are talking about just writing in Bernie. It might be a really, really interesting election.

But for folks who are really serious about getting a third candidate, they are starting to talk about possibly "hacking" the election. An amateur, but well-researched, article shows us that you could throw the election into chaos by winning only a few states. In short, if nobody gets a majority, Congress gets to pick the president out of the top 3 candidates. Read the article for details.

Now it seems extremely unlikely that a 3rd-party candidate will manage to win outright in Nevada, New Mexico, and New Hampshire. There is some chance that a Libertarian candidate could pull it off: New Mexico is Gary Johnson's home state, and both New Hampshire and Nevada lean fairly Libertarian--there's a reason the author chose these states.

So let's say someone like Johnson pulls it off (or, say, Jill Stein takes Oregon and Washington, and Clinton takes Florida, or some other scenario). You've got a lot of disgruntled Republicans that might be willing to dump the party and conspire to get a Libertarian in office, and it goes to Congress.

Let's consider the implications if Congress pushed Johnson through as a compromise (this is the part that seems most unlikely). Suddenly we have a situation where the declared preferences of 16% of the country outweigh the preferences of over 80%. As much as people complain about Trump and Clinton, they have each received significantly more votes from voters in the primaries than their opponents. They are unlikable, but they are probably going to be appointed by a clear majority of their party's voters. 

Something to consider: it's entirely legally legitimate for someone to "hack" the electoral college in the above way and turn the vote over to Congress, and if that 3rd party candidate won, they'd be the legal president: no cheating necessary. But these are very unpopular candidates, and it's entirely possible a majority of Americans would rather have another candidate altogether. 

Would someone "hacking" the system in this way be undermining democracy? Would they be saving it? Or are they just "operating in the rules" and there are no moral implications at all?

Let us know your thoughts in comments.


Erik Fogg

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