The scandal that will take down the Electoral College

Two identical, glossy wooden boxes bound with leather straps and locked with a small key hold the electoral college vote certificates for the 2012 election.
Editor's note:

Roy Neel is a former Chief of Staff for Vice President Al Gore and Deputy Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton. He teaches courses on Presidential Transitions at Vanderbilt University and lectures at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of THE ELECTORS.

The year is 2020.  An incumbent Republican president is struggling, with little interest in the job or his reelection campaign. Trailing in the polls, he gets an unexpected boost from a terrorist incident. As the country reels from the catastrophe, the election tightens, ending in a near draw. Determined to reverse the voting results, the President’s hardened advisors concoct an elaborate conspiracy to steal the election by manipulating the Electoral College.

This story, which became my novel, The Electors, was written 18 months before Donald Trump shocked the word on Nov. 8. At the time it seemed little more than a far-fetched political thriller that might delight followers of House of Cards or Homeland, or the recent network hit, Designated Survivor.

Yet truth has become stranger than fiction. The long-ignored Electoral College has become the final dramatic act in our complex system of electing someone to fill the world’s most powerful job. As Trump prepares to take office in six weeks, new revelations about Vladimir Putin’s alleged cyber-hacking attempts to influence the outcome of the presidential election have caused some electors to question their commitment to Trump when they meet to vote next Monday.

In my novel, the president’s Chief of Staff masterminds a secret program to persuade a few electors to switch their votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives, which would decide the outcome. In my novel (and in reality) each state would receive one vote. California, with 38 million citizens: one vote. Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000: one vote. I imagined a fiercely divided and partisan Congress doing whatever it took to deny election to the Democratic challenger.

That was fiction—now on to reality.

For a country that treasures its one-man, one-vote principle, the Electoral College procedure seems bizarre, certainly one that would never be legislated into place in modern times. Yet this is the system our Constitution mandates for contingent elections, one that has been invoked twice in the Republic’s history—John Quincy Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes prevailing in the House over Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden in 1825 and 1877, respectively.

In four elections, the presidency was awarded to the candidate who failed to win the popular vote but prevailed in the Electoral College, most recently Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Trump v. Clinton this year. All the “disputed” winners were Republicans.

Never have so many virtually anonymous citizens been so publicly courted to affect the outcome of a presidential election. Editorials have called upon Electors to abandon Trump for another candidate—John Kasich, for example. A full-page ad placed in the Washington Post by a bipartisan coalition cited the “grave and continual threat” posed by Trump’s inauguration and appealed to electors to choose instead a “person with the temperament, integrity and commitment to Constitutional principles…The Electors Trust offers legal support and defense to any elector invoking “your right to exercise your independent and nonpartisan judgment” on Dec 19.

It is unclear how effective these campaigns will be when the electors meet in their states; thirty-seven must switch their vote to deny Trump an outright victory. But “faithless electors” have opposed the winner of their state’s vote before. Through the years more than 150 have done so, though with no real consequence. Several Trump electors have vowed to oppose the president-elect this week, and a number of Clinton electors have tried to form a coalition with Republicans to drag Trump under the necessary 270 vote mark.

Passionate opposition to an election outcome has never been higher. As Al Gore’s Transition Director, I suffered through the bitter 2000 election, the recount, and the painful court challenges. The rancor in the wake of Trump’s election has taken this bitterness to a much higher level, among both Democrats and establishment Republicans.

In spite of all this it is highly unlikely that 37 electors will abandon Trump this week. Nonetheless, a new spark has been lit under the fledgling movement to abolish the Electoral College as an undemocratic artifact of our Constitution. Even Donald Trump, believing in 2012 that Romney would win the popular vote, called the Electoral College a “disaster for democracy.” He has, of course, changed his tune, tweeting after the election: “The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play.’”

So can change happen?  With the Congress and the presidency firmly in Republican control, prospects for a Constitutional amendment to abolish or reform the Electoral College seem dim.  Two-thirds of the Senate and House must vote to propose an amendment, and three-fourths of the States must ratify. So this avenue of reform is full of roadblocks. And abolishing the electoral college is likely to come up against the same forces that created it in the first place: the preponderance of small states that are advantaged under the current system.

Eleven states—all solidly Democratic—have become part of a multistate compact that would award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, if and when enough states follow that lead to ensure an Electoral College majority for the winner of the popular vote. As with Congress, state legislatures and governor’s offices are overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans. Therefore, the multistate compact is only as realistic as the potential for politically overturning a large number of state governments, unlikely in the foreseeable future.

We are stuck with this anachronistic, antidemocratic, right-tilted method of electing our presidents. It may take a scandal of massive proportions to convince the public and our lawmakers to finally ditch the Electoral College.

What if, in 2020 an incumbent president tries to steal reelection by manipulating the Electoral College with cyber-spying, blackmail, and…?