It began with an online petition launched in the hours immediately following Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the general election. Yes, Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College, the argument ran, but she won the popular vote (by a large and still swelling margin). That justifies asking electors to abandon Trump and switch their support to Clinton when they vote on Dec. 19 to make the outcome official.
This is a terrible idea guaranteed to spark a constitutional crisis.
By all means, work to abolish the Electoral College once the 2016 election is behind us — there are strong arguments for and against making such a change — but asking electors to disregard the electoral vote outcome in favor of siding with the popular vote winner this year smacks of an attempted coup. Trump and his supporters would undoubtedly charge that the system is rigged. And they would be right.
A thoughtful liberal pundit and a trio of respected scholars have floated a similar but more sophisticated argument in favor of hijacking the Electoral College vote: Elevating Donald Trump to the presidency constitutes an emergency situation, a moment of existential threat to the republic. The Electoral College was designed to prevent precisely this kind of threat — by allowing electors to overrule the popular will when it appeared ready to empower a potential dictator. Republican electors would never break from Trump in large numbers if they thought it would lead Clinton to prevail. The key is therefore to get a bloc of electors from states Clinton won to choose a Republican alternative to Trump. That could embolden electors from states Trump carried to switch to someone else. As the scholars sum up their proposal, "If only 37 electors from states Trump won join this bipartisan effort, the election will be thrown into the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority can then make a final choice."
This proposal may be somewhat less fanciful and egregiously irresponsible than one attached to the online petition, but not by much. It's crucially important that those of us who are deeply alarmed by the prospect of a President Trump take a stand against the proposal and explain why it needs to be forcefully rejected.
Let's begin by acknowledging what is the most likely outcome of this anti-Trump gambit: that the Republican majority in the House of Representatives newly empowered to pick the president ultimately chooses … Donald Trump. There are two interrelated reasons why this is by far the likeliest result: Trump himself is extremely popular with a plurality of Republican voters, and there is no consensus among those who dislike Trump regarding who to support as an alternative. This is the same dynamic that led Trump to survive every effort to sink him during and after the Republican primaries. Very few politicians were willing to risk antagonizing the Republican electorate by turning against him, and that would almost certainly continue to be the case through deliberation in the House over who should become president on Jan. 20.
And that points to why the worst possible outcome of the electors throwing the decision to the House would be for Trump to be denied the presidency. Yes, Trump poses a very serious threat to the country and its liberal democratic norms, but he is not the root of the problem. His millions of passionate supporters are. Among other things, these voters rallied to Trump because they responded to his message that the country's political and economic system is rigged against them. Denying the presidency to their preferred candidate after they'd been told for weeks that he prevailed in the election would confirm every conspiracy they ever entertained.
That would be civic dynamite.
Think it's bad that 200 or so neo-Nazis gathered this past weekend for a celebratory conference in the nation's capital? Just wait until that number surges into the thousands or more, which is exactly what would happen if Trump's most committed supporters felt permanently frozen out by the country's political establishment. Democracies don't succumb to dictatorship when a handful of bad individuals ruthlessly seize power from out of the blue. They succumb to dictatorship when a large, angry faction of the population throws its support behind a handful of bad individuals and supports them in ruthlessly seizing power. For those who think we've already reached that point with Trump, I assure you that it could (and may yet) get much, much worse. Trump's opponents need to be extremely careful that they do nothing to hasten that eventuality or make it more likely — by, for example, denying Trump the presidency and thereby driving him and his supporters out of the democratic political system altogether.
The only way the Electoral College maneuver could succeed is if the institution had its own base of legitimacy — if it were widely respected as an august body of Wise Men and Women whose deliberations issued in a dispassionate, extra-partisan expression of the common good. This whole scheme only works if our collective response to such a radical intervention would be, "Thank you for saving us from ourselves."
But of course, no one views the Electoral College this way. In any given election, each state awards a set number of electoral votes. It takes 270 to win. We presume that the outcome is automatic: Whoever gets to 270 is the victor, period. We rarely even think about these electors as people, let alone the wisest among us.
In the scheme proposed by the professors, this body of unelected and unaccountable electors would take it upon themselves to overrule the outcome of both the electoral vote contest and the popular vote contest. Assuming Trump didn't end up prevailing in the House, the end result would be one president-elect deposed by a body lacking in democratic legitimacy and replaced by another also lacking in democratic legitimacy. There are probably actions that would do more to delegitimize America's political institutions, but I'm hard pressed to think of what they might be.
The Electoral College is an anti-democratic anachronism in a democratic age. Americans are free to consider doing away with it once the 2016 election is behind us. In the meantime, responsible Americans should refrain from encouraging electors to think of themselves as the conscience of the nation. They have no standing to serve in that role, and in acting otherwise they could easily end up making our very serious problems even worse.