Mischief by Democratic Electors Needs to Stop

They may be mad about Trump but their actions are undemocratic.

Nothing is cracked.

Photographer: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The electors in the Electoral College are scheduled to vote on Dec. 19. Normally, this is a formality. Electors were chosen by the voters on Nov. 8, and they do as they are chosen to do. But this time we're getting a little unfortunate drama.

Some Democratic electors are trying to hatch a dead-on-arrival plot to flip the election by switching their votes to Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich and inviting Republican electors to join them. One Republican elector from Texas has announced he plans to vote for Kasich.

They should all just stop.

Yes, the U.S. constitutional system includes actual flesh-and-blood electors who get to vote as instructed by their states' voters. And nothing prevents these people from ignoring their instructions and substituting anyone they want. 1

Nothing, that is, except for respect for democratic norms.

In the way the system has worked since the early 19th century, the electors don't exercise independent judgment. Originally, the idea was that the states would deliberate over who would represent them in the Electoral College, and then the electors chosen would in turn pick the president.

But it's never really worked like that. As it is, the electors are mostly little-known party loyalists. No one purposefully voted for them because of their wisdom. Even if voters know they exist (and most people don't), they assume the electors will ratify the preferences expressed in the elections in their states, as has always been the case. 

The argument for electors acting contrary to their instructions, presumably, is that Donald Trump is such a unique threat to democracy that the normal rules should be tossed out the window.

But this is a perilous game to play without overwhelming evidence of malfeasance.

After all, lots of conservatives considered Barack Obama (and Bill Clinton, and others going back to Franklin Roosevelt) a danger to democracy. Lots of liberals believed the same about George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. And if you scratched hard enough, you could find evidence that each failed in some way to uphold democratic standards.

But, remember, electors are not ordinary citizens. Their job is to do what they're told, by the voters. 2  Yes, democracy is not a suicide pact, and, yes, I think Trumpism is a threat to constitutional government in the United States. But right now it's only a threat. And taking pre-emptive action right now is itself a threat to democracy. 

The U.S. constitutional system as it has worked for two centuries is strong and resilient. Unfaithful electors would erode it. The fight for democracy should not involve undermining it. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Some state laws try to bind the electors, but it's unlikely the courts would ever enforce those laws.

  2. To put it another way: Electors are only representatives in the very narrow sense of fulfilling a task they are chosen to do. They are not selected to have any independent judgment. Indeed, in Hanna Pitkin's strict construction, they are not properly "representatives" at all.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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