Faithless Electors Are Still a Problem

Knock it off.

Photographer: Chris Schneider/AFP

You know what both U.S. political parties aren’t paying enough attention to? Electors. That is, the actual people who will cast electoral votes in the next election. They’ll be chosen, using state-by-state procedures, sometime next year, and they’ll be expected to vote for their party’s presidential nominee if he or she wins their state.

In 2016, an unusual number of “faithless” electors did not vote for the candidate they were supposed to. Five Democrats failed to support Hillary Clinton and two Republicans didn’t vote for Donald Trump. Three more Democrats attempted to defect but were blocked by state laws.

Although the 2016 election was abnormal in several respects, individual electors have defected six different times over the past 40 years. Most of them were likely engaging in symbolic protests, and would’ve acted differently had the contest been close. But it’s certainly possible that faithless electors could change a future election result, either deliberately or accidentally if enough of them in a close contest all think that they’re casting harmless protest votes.

There’s no justification for any of it. Whether one supports the Electoral College or not, personal choices by the electors simply aren’t part of the system – and never have been, despite the Framers’ intentions, basically since the Constitution was adopted.

The best fix would be a constitutional amendment making the votes automatic. There’s little chance of that happening, however, given that those who oppose the current system have no interest in helping it run smoothly. The next-best fix would be for more states to adopt laws keeping faithless electors from going their own way.

In those states that haven’t taken legal precautions, parties will need to police this problem on their own. This shouldn’t be hard! After all, the parties have strong incentives to make Electoral College voting as automatic as possible (at least in the states their candidate wins). And it shouldn’t be difficult to find a handful of intense supporters for any given nominee, even for those as unpopular as Clinton and Trump wound up being. It’s just a question of taking these positions seriously, and making sure those entrusted with responsibility will carry it out.

If elections are to be meaningful they need rules, and the rules must be followed. For better or worse, the de facto rules in presidential elections call for electors to follow the choices of the parties and voters in their state – without exception. So let’s hope that this time around the parties find people who can actually do what they’re supposed to do.

1. Jennifer Cyr and Jessica Maves Braithwaite at the Monkey Cage on what’s happening in Venezuela.

2. Michael Stern at Just Security makes the case that a formal impeachment inquiry would help the House’s investigations. I agree this is the strongest argument for such an inquiry, but I’m still not convinced.

3. Catherine Rampell on the talking point that Democrats can’t investigate and legislate at the same time – which is obviously false since they are, in fact, doing both.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on developing nations.

5. And William Adler at A House Divided on the fun of archival research

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Jonathan Bernstein

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