Either the electoral college matters or it doesn’t. Either the electors are there for a reason, to deliberate in the manner set forth by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68, to protect us from the exact scenario we now find ourselves in or they have no purpose. Either they are there to serve that purpose or they are an anachronism, serving no purpose other than to frustrate the express desires of the electorate and the Constitutional right of equal protection (you could make the case). So either the electoral college matters, or it should be abolished & the direct will of the people should be respected.
In Federalist No. 68, The Mode of Electing the President, Alexander Hamilton discusses the process of the electors deliberating over their selection for President. He explains that, “the process affords a moral certainty, 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.” Hamilton also makes reference in this paper to concerns about foreign influence. If ever there were a time when the electors need to be apprehensive about these things, this is it.
Trump’s countless, serious shortcomings have been much discussed, so I won’t get into all of them here. But there are two huge issues that, on their own, make this a truly unique situation that I think warrants consideration by the electors. First is Trump’s mysterious relationship with Russia, which reporters and (some in) Congress are still trying to untangle. We just recently got a bunch more information about the Russian hacking & interference into the election. Trump, very oddly has refused to accept the intel from 17 different intelligence agencies which backs this finding. This is an enormous red flag for the man who will be responsible for the security of our nation. Additionally, throughout the campaign Trump defended Putin and Russia at every turn, he had several campaign aides (now staff members) who work very closely with Russia, he has gone back & forth on whether he has ever met or spoken to Putin (saying as recently as 2014 that they had spoken during a Trump visit to Russia and in 2015 that he got to know Putin well when they were on 60 Minutes together but then denying later in the campaign that he knows or has ever met Putin), he changed the Republican Party platform to benefit Russia, he’s spoken against NATO, and he has chosen for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a close Putin friend with major business interests in Russia. Most importantly, we have no idea what business interests Trump himself has in Russia. In the past, he and his children have said or alluded to the fact that they do major amounts of business with Russia, but now Trump denies doing any business with them. We have no way of knowing the truth about this since (a) we haven’t seen Trump’s tax returns and (b) his companies are privately held so they don’t have to make their financial documents available to the public. To be clear, wanting improved relations with Russia isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but without knowing the details of any of these personal relationships, we can’t know whose interests Trump or the people around him will be putting first – the United States or their own personal interests, or perhaps the interests of Vladimir Putin.
The second major issue was touched on above, and that’s Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interests and the complete opacity which prevents us from even fully understanding them. We have never before had a President with such large and complex business dealings, not just here, but all over the world. To make matters worse, Trumps companies are all private companies, which means they have no obligation to provide any information to the public on any sort of regular basis. Reporters have done a lot of digging to scrounge up information, and they’ve found things that were provided by Trump’s companies under certain circumstances, like when applying for casino licenses. But there is very little available for an organization so sprawling. And then, of course, on top of that, Trump is the first Presidential candidate in the modern era to not provide his tax returns. Seeing Trump’s tax returns could provide us with a some additional information that would be useful in understanding potential conflicts. Therefore, not only does Trump have an extraordinary number of conflicts (which it appears he will do nothing to remedy), there is very little way for any of us to even keep tabs on him in order to know when & whether his decisions on behalf of the nation may also affect one of his businesses.*
Having said all that, I did mention in my “About” section that despite the name of this blog, I’m actually not entirely sure how I feel about the idea of faithless electors. Like many of you (I’m guessing), it wasn’t something I’d even given thought to until recently. I’m torn now because we have over 200 years of established tradition in which the electors have followed the vote of the state they represent (there have been very rare instances of electors going rogue but never enough to affect the result of an election). It is no small step to uproot that. On a less lofty scale, there’s this obvious dilemma: if the electors contravene the votes in their state in order to upend the election this time, once that seal is broken, what’s to stop them from doing it again next time & the next time & the time after that? We anti-Trump citizens of course think this situation is unique – a national emergency, sui generis – but those who support Trump won’t agree, and they’d likely be more than willing to turn the same argument against a candidate they simply don’t like the next time around.
One way to possibly mitigate this problem would be to pick a consensus, Republican candidate (Governor John Kasich and former Governor Mitt Romney are names that have been floated out there). That way, it wouldn’t appear that this was a partisan move just meant to undo an election result that went against one’s “team.” The party that won the electoral college would still win the Presidency, but behind a candidate with much less potential to threaten the Republic.
Bottom line, I’m still torn on whether this is something we should even push for. I don’t know if I feel right about it. But what I do feel strongly about is that if electors are not going to deliberate, if they’re always just an automatic ratification of the people’s vote – put through a strainer to come out the other end in a completely unrepresentative manner in terms of the number of people they each stand for – then it’s time to abolish the electoral college.
*And this doesn’t even touch on Trump’s issue with the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. This post is already getting long, so I won’t get into it at length here, but I’ll just say that on top of all of the aforementioned issues raised by Trump’s businesses, Trump appears poised to violate this clause as soon as he takes the oath of office. There’s some disagreement over how exactly the clause is interpreted, but it’s clear that even if there’s no breach at that exact moment, it’s nearly certain to happen soon after. This alone should be grounds to give the electors very serious pause. I hope to discuss the Emoluments Clause in more detail in a future post.