Editorial: The electoral college shouldn’t veto Trump’s election
Protests are planned for state capitals, but they are unlikely to persuade the electoral college to dump Trump.
On Monday, 538 presidential electors will meet in their home states and Washington, D.C., in what is traditionally a formalistic footnote to the outcome of the November election. But some passionate opponents of Donald J. Trump are beseeching the electors to try to block Trump’s path to the White House.
It’s not going to happen. More to the point, it shouldn’t happen.
Trump is profoundly problematic as a potential president — unfit, inexperienced, irresponsible, just for starters — which is why this editorial page strenuously opposed his election. He trails Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes nationwide, which makes a mockery of his claim of a popular mandate and underscores the need for a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college and provide for the election of the president by a national popular vote. Highly disturbing evidence that Russian intelligence agencies intervened to help Trump and hurt Clinton casts a serious shadow over Trump’s victory, even if it was only one of many factors in the outcome.
The 2016 election wasn’t conducted on the principle that the winner of the popular vote would become president.
But none of these considerations justifies upending the expectations of voters, Democratic as well as Republican, who chose these electors expecting them to support the nominee of their respective parties.
A statement by a group called Defend Democracy, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, echoes the American colonists’ indictment of King George III by accusing Trump of “a long train of abuses and usurpations” — including defending torture, inspiring hate crimes and demonstrating “an incomprehension of our humanity, dignity and rights.” Those are fair characterizations of Trump’s ugly campaign rhetoric; alas, not enough voters in key states were similarly outraged.
The authors of the petition, who believe that the electoral college should reject Trump, are correct that Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, saw the electors as exercising independent judgment and “acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.” That point is also made in a YouTube video plea to Republican electors from Martin Sheen, who played a fictional president on “The West Wing.” Sheen says: “Our founding fathers built the electoral college to safeguard the American people from the dangers of a demagogue and to ensure that the presidency only goes to someone who is ‘to an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.’”
The problem with this argument is that the college hasn’t existed as Hamilton understood it for more than 150 years. Rather than being chosen by state legislatures and directed to exercise independent judgment, electors are chosen by the voters from party slates and are expected to support the party nominee. Only a few “faithless electors” in recent history have violated that understanding.
Although most constitutional scholars agree that electors are free under the U.S. Constitution to cast their votes as they please, 29 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that seek to bind electors, sometimes with threats of fines or criminal penalties. And they are generally expected to do the same in the other 21 states.
This page believes that the electoral college is anachronistic and that the system should be changed so that the winner of the popular vote becomes president. That’s why we have supported both a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an arrangement in which states pledge to award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. (California has joined the compact, but it won’t go into effect until it’s joined by enough states to comprise a majority of the electoral vote.)
But for better or worse — we think for worse — the 2016 election wasn’t conducted on the principle that the winner of the popular vote would become president. Both Clinton and Trump competed (and tailored their campaign strategies) to win electoral votes in what amounted to 51 separate statewide contests. They knew the rules from the start and it is too late now to change those rules without creating a free-for-all that would wreak havoc on the existing system. Any effort to claw back the election from Trump now would create a serious constitutional crisis.
Had Clinton won more electoral votes — even if she finished second in the popular vote — her supporters would have proclaimed victory and vociferously condemned any attempt to incite the electoral college to keep her out of the White House. Trump wasn’t our choice, and the prospect of him as president is deeply worrisome. But those who are trying to foment a revolt in the electoral college should focus their energies instead on preparing to oppose Trump’s policies after he takes office.
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