Although the presidential election was called for Donald Trump on the night of November 8, it’s not actually over until the 538 members of the Electoral College vote on December 19. In the weeks between now and then, two Democratic electors are hoping to convince their colleagues to select someone other than Trump for the presidency.
Michael Baca of Colorado and Bret Chiafalo of Washington state call themselves the Hamilton Electors, in a nod to Alexander Hamilton’s explanation of the Electoral College’s necessity. The founding father and first U.S. Treasury secretary once said that the body exists to ensure that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” By Baca and Chiafalo’s reckoning, it exists to prevent a Trump presidency.
“We’re trying to be that ‘break in case of emergency’ fire hose that’s gotten dusty over the last 200 years,” Chaifolo told me. “This is an emergency.”
In every other presidential election in history, the members of the Electoral College have voted in accordance with the popular vote in their respective states. Because Trump has more electoral votes than Hillary Clinton does—290 to her 232—his November haul should translate to a win in December’s election. But Baca and Chiafalo argue that this isn’t like every other election in history—and thus electors should feel empowered to break tradition.
The college’s members come from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.; the number of electors a state has corresponds with the number of House and Senate members who represent it in Congress. Baca and Chiafalo are not pushing for Republican electors to all switch their allegiance to Clinton, who’s winning the popular vote nationwide even as her Electoral College count lags behind Trump’s. Instead, they suggest a “compromise candidate”—a Republican they find less objectionable than Trump, such as former Republican nominee Mitt Romney or Ohio Governor John Kasich. (Though those options are just placeholders; they said it should be up to the Republican electors to pick a new standard-bearer.)
Baca described their best-case scenario: uniting 135 Republican and 135 Democratic electors behind a moderate Republican candidate, thus securing that person’s position as president with the required 270 votes. If that doesn’t work, and it’s highly unlikely it will, they’re hoping they can at least convince 37 of the Republican electors whose states went for Trump to default and support the compromise candidate. That would bring Trump’s count below 270, and the election would then go to the House of Representatives. While there’s a strong chance that, in that hypothetical scenario, the Republican-controlled House would nevertheless vote to install Trump, Baca and Chiafolo would hope that, given the opportunity, they would support a more conventional Republican instead.
This would be in the legislature’s best interest, Baca said, because a different Republican candidate who “actually knows what they’re doing” would be able to more smoothly enact a Republican Congress’s agenda. Though Baca and Chiafolo’s states voted for Clinton, they said they would both gladly support a moderate compromise candidate from the GOP; Chiafolo, a Bernie Sanders supporter during the Democratic primary, previously told a Seattle Times reporter that he hadn’t “ruled out” withholding his vote from Clinton.
So far, seven Democratic electors, including Baca and Chiafolo, are willing to support a Republican candidate other than Trump. No Republican electors have come on board yet. But “we hope that once the first Republican peels away, once we have one who is brave enough to stick to their morals,” Baca said, “then we’ll see a wave of support.”
They’re not currently contacting the Republican electors directly and discourage their supporters from doing so. Instead, they’re focusing on getting the word out through a social-media campaign and through their website. “The general strategy right now is to educate and support the Republican electors, to let them know that they have the right—the duty—to pick who they think is right for the presidency,” Chiafalo said.
College of Charleston political science professor Claire Wofford explained to me that the founding fathers were actually quite afraid of direct democracy; they put the Electoral College in place as a fail-safe to protect the American presidency from a candidate who’s popular but unfit for office. “Several features of our government are designed to ‘filter’ what the [constitutional] framers saw might be the irrationality and emotion of the populace, including the Electoral College,” she said. “So you could argue that the election of Trump is just such an instance, in which a demagogue has somehow managed to ‘sway’ an easily misled public.” Wofford said “there is no explicit federal or constitutional ban on electors selecting candidates as they wish, even if that means departing from the popular vote of the state.”
An elector who votes other than as prescribed by their state’s popular vote is called a “faithless elector.” Some states impose a penalty for this action, but the fines are relatively light, at approximately $500 to $1,000. However, it’s possible for states to block an upset by replacing faithless electors with alternates who are willing to fall in line. Even if the Hamilton Electors are willing to get 270 electors on board, their efforts could still be blocked.
Another challenge, Wofford pointed out, would be convincing the candidate who the faithless electors select to accept the appointment. “The practical and political problems would be difficult to overcome,” she said. “There would be major legal challenges—which would consume a great deal of time—as well as major questions about the candidate's legitimacy as president.” Those barriers are significant, and an Electoral College revolt would certainly lead the nation into uncharted waters, as Peter Beinart has described.
Baca and Chiafolo admit that their campaign is a long shot. But so was Trump’s win, they pointed out, and they feel they have to try. “The biggest criticism we’ve gotten so far,” Baca said, “is along the lines of, ‘The people have spoken, why don’t you go with the people?’ But if we did that, then Clinton would be the president,” because of her substantial, growing lead in the popular vote. “The Constitution is quite clear about what our job is,” Baca said, “and that it’s our decision at the end of the day.”