Even before major news outlets reported late last week that the Central Intelligence Agency now believes Russian cyberattacks during the U.S. election were intended to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, Trump was on track to see more Electoral College defections than any president in over 50 years.
In late November, a Republican elector, who concluded he could not in good conscience vote for Trump, resigned. Another, Texan Republican Christopher Suprun, announced he would be a “faithless” elector, and that other Republicans would join him.
“I am confident in saying, at this point I don’t think I will be the only one voting for someone other than Donald Trump who is carrying a Republican elector seat,” Suprun told ABC News.
On Monday, Suprun and several Democratic electors signed an open letter to James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, demanding a briefing about “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.” Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, issued a supportive statement on their behalf.
Critics of this noisemaking argue these electors and their supporters are hypocritically threatening an established norm—that the Electoral College should rubber stamp statewide election results—after having insisted on the importance of similar norms when Trump was traducing them.
If the Electoral College installed a random person, let alone Clinton, into the presidency, it would be wildly destabilizing. But this critique rests on a false choice between an Electoral College that acts like a pliant, ceremonial relic, and an unprecedented but constitutional Electoral College coup.
There is a middle ground in which a non-decisive but significant number of electors—on the basis of what they learn from a briefing with Clapper, or on the basis of the extraordinary opacity surrounding Trump—register their view that Trump can’t be entrusted with the presidency, knowing he will become president anyhow. Not only is there some precedent for this kind of protest voting, but it, and similar statements of no-confidence from within official channels, will be an important source of resistance to a presidency that poses an enormous threat to small-l liberalism. There are certainly norms that shouldn’t be ignored for the purposes of weakening Trump, but this isn’t one of them.
Trump opponents will ultimately need a clear resistance strategy, but in a leaderless environment, they have been floundering in the dark for more than a month now, grasping for short-term anti-Trump resistance tactics.
None of them has been particularly effective, but we have learned through these efforts that Trump is highly sensitive about the fact that he lost the popular vote by a margin of millions, and his Electoral College margin is historically low. He and his supporters want to claim a mandate, and feel threatened by the awareness that he will preside over a term of minority rule.
Thinning that electoral majority even further, through GOP protest votes, would be a small but useful public testament to both his unfitness for office and the lack of public confidence in his ascent to power. For the time being, this is what official resistance to Trump will look like: numerous battlefronts, some invisible, each inconsequential, but that have a real impact when taken together.
Even in the unlikely event that anti-Trump activists were able to round up the 37 electors required to deny Trump a winning 270 vote threshold, that would merely throw the election to the House of Representatives, which will be controlled by Republicans, who would likely install Trump anyhow. They would become more directly accountable for their decision to enable Trump in the first place, and Trump’s administration would rightly be further tainted. But he would become president.
Should a House controlled by the same party as the person who won 270-plus electoral votes worth of states be unable to install that person into the presidency, it would be a history-making event, but it would also be evidence on its face that the “winner” was too great a threat to our system of government to be allowed to take office. His own party would have rejected him. This is impossible to imagine happening in an environment where his Republican vice president, the Republican Speaker of the House and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the country support Trump.
To the extent that what’s under consideration would be the greatest show of Electoral College rebelliousness in U.S. history, it would be unprecedented. But the assumption that it would be corrosive to norms doesn’t follow from there. Unprecedented use of constitutional powers can firm up important norms, and in this case it would serve as a reminder to future presidential candidates: Yes, you might be able to win by violating all of the courtesies and standards our political system takes for granted, but even if you do, your presidency will run its course under a cloud. Impeachment is an important power until such time as it turns into a routine partisan cudgel. This is no different.
The Electoral College is not going to make some random person president, and due to the chaos that might unleash, it’s hard to make an unequivocal argument that it should. But those who object to Electoral College hijinks on the grounds that liberals would be hypocritical to combat the Trumpian norm-breaking they decry with norm-breaking of their own should rethink their assumptions. Every time it has been within the power of a group of people to stop Trump, they have not done so, and they have been rewarded for their conformity to norms by the erosion of yet more, increasingly important ones. This might be the decision point at which that pattern breaks down, but at least some agnosticism is in order. It is terrifyingly likely that months into Trump presidency, we will look back and admit that December’s Electoral College antics were fairly unremarkable, and that they should have gone further.