The Electoral College Is John Podesta's Last Hope

The Clinton campaign chairman is backing a demand from 10 electors for an intelligence briefing on Russian interference in the presidential race.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

John Podesta, the chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign, is famously fascinated with UFOs. In the days when Clinton looked like the next president, alien conspiracy theorists hoped he’d be able to push for the disclosure of state secrets about extraterrestrial visitors.

But Clinton lost, and now Podesta is left to press for more mundane disclosures. On Monday, a group of 10 presidential electors led by Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, demanded to be briefed on Russian hacking into the election. The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian agents were interfering with the election, and the CIA now believes the goal was to aid Trump. The electors write:

The Electors require to know from the intelligence community whether there are ongoing investigations into ties between Donald Trump, his campaign or associates, and Russian government interference in the election, the scope of those investigations, how far those investigations may have reached, and who was involved in those investigations. We further require a briefing on all investigative findings, as these matters directly impact the core factors in our deliberations of whether Mr. Trump is fit to serve as President of the United States.

They write that this is a bipartisan demand, though that’s somewhat misleading: Chris Suprun, the lone Republican to sign, has already said he will not vote for Trump.

Later on Monday, Podesta issued a statement backing the electors. “The bipartisan electors' letter raises very grave issues involving our national security. Electors have a solemn responsibility under the Constitution and we support their efforts to have their questions addressed. Podesta also goes on to decry a lack of media attention during the campaign to the prospect of Russian interference (a subjective call, and one that’s open to argument) and calls for further investigation and disclosure to the public (reasonable).

It’s the support for briefing the electors that sticks out. What is it that entitles electors to a briefing on classified material that other citizens cannot view? Electors don’t really have any particular qualifications in intelligence; for the most part, they are simply politically active people chosen by their state parties, or sometimes they are elected. In any case, they’re not elected to assess intelligence. They are elected for one purpose, which is to vote for whomever their state’s voters select. That points to a second question: What would the electors do with whatever information they glean from such a briefing?

The answer is unlikely to make anyone feel good. Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that enough electors decided to flip their votes to Clinton and hand her the presidency, the ensuing political and constitutional crisis would be brutal, even if one believes a Trump presidency will also produce a political and constitutional crisis.

Democrats are understandably upset about an election in which, for the second time in five elections, their candidate won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote. There are some people who believe that the Electoral College ought to be abolished, a legitimate political goal. But the electors’ letter, and Podesta’s just-asking-questions endorsement of it, seems to be geared toward changing the rules in the middle of the game, in the hopes of convincing electors to change their votes in defiance of the intentions of voters as expressed in the existing system, and sometimes in defiance of laws that bind them.

The public deserves to know as much as it can about any interference in elections without endangering national security. But why should should electors learn that separately?