On Monday, 538 presidential electors will gather to name Donald Trump as president-elect and Mike Pence as vice-president elect. Or at least, we think they will. On Nov. 8, Trump and Pence provisionally won 306 electoral votes and Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine won 232, based on the popular vote in each state.1 But those electoral votes are cast by people — the members of the Electoral College — and in many states the electors have the right to buck the voters’ choice.
In 1988, for example, Margaret Leach, an elector from West Virginia, deliberately switched the positions of Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen on her ballot in what she said was a protest against the Electoral College (Dukakis and Bentsen had won West Virginia, which is something that Democrats used to do once upon a time). Thus, the national electoral vote tally for the 1988 election was 426 electoral votes for George H.W. Bush, 111 for Dukakis, and one for Bentsen.
So-called “faithless electors” like Leach have been rare, and have never flipped the Electoral College outcome. There was one faithless elector each year in 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1988, 2000 and 2004. The only mass defection of electors from the top of the ticket2 came in 1872, when 63 electors originally pledged to Horace Greeley chose not to back him. That’s because Greeley, who was jointly the nominee of the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties, had died after the election but before the Electoral College met.
This year, there’s been a movement afoot to encourage electors to vote for someone other than Trump in an effort to deny him the presidency. If at least 37 Trump-pledged electors were to do this, it would deny any candidate a majority3 and the election would be determined by the House of Representatives, which would choose from among the top three finishers. For example, if 30 Trump electors defected to Pence and another 10 defected to Ohio Governor John Kasich, the House would choose among Trump (266 electoral votes), Clinton (232) and Pence (30).
You can get into quite an abyss by reading the various cases that Democrats are making for electors behaving faithlessly, which turn on some combination of Clinton’s substantial win in the national popular vote, potential Russian interference into the election, and Trump’s conflicts-of-interest and possible violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause to claim that the election outcome was illegitimate.
At the risk of engaging in a hit-and-run argument, I wanted to go on record to say that I think this is a bad idea. My reasons are best encapsulated in this tweetstorm by the political scientist Matt Glassman, who notes that there is a strong precedent toward electors abiding by the vote in their states. Other than a few one-off cases like Leach, the historical norm has been that electors stick with the voters’ choice unless the candidate died, as in the case of Greeley or the losing vice presidential candidate James S. Sherman in 1912. Furthermore, as Glassman notes, it’s not at all clear what the upside for Democrats would be. This year, narrowly denying Trump a majority in the Electoral College would still probably result in Trump’s election via the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, producing the same president but with a Constitutional crisis along the way. And in the long run, encouraging electors to deviate from the outcomes in their states would result in the House more often deciding presidential elections, which is probably not in Democrats’ interests given how their voters are clustered — and gerrymandered — into urban congressional districts.
Besides, the Constitution provides for other remedies to deal with a president whom voters perceive to be illegitimate or unfit. He can be impeached. Lesser known: In the event of a physical or mental disability, he can be temporarily relieved of duty under the 25th Amendment. He can, of course, be voted out of office after four years.
And in the meantime, voters can check the president’s power by electing members of Congress to oppose him, or by pressuring the current Congress to do so. It’s somewhat vexing to me that Democrats have focused so much energy on long-shot hopes of overturning the 2016 results instead of looking forward to — you know — actually winning the next set of elections. Those two pursuits aren’t mutually exclusive, but the latter is far more likely to pay dividends than the former.
The 2018 midterms will come around quickly, and they’ll offer Democrats an opportunity to flip the House by winning a net of 24 seats, a not-insurmountable number even given that there are fewer competitive districts than there used to be. (The Senate might be harder to flip, because so many of the seats in play are already held by Democrats.) Most voters went to the polls last month expecting Clinton to win, which may have affected how they filled out the rest of their ballots — some voters may have backed Republicans for Congress and for state and local offices in an effort to put a check on Clinton in the White House. This situation is fairly unusual — normally voters do a pretty good job of predicting who the president will be — and it potentially creates opportunities for Democrats to win support from voters who will now be doubly eager to counterbalance Trump, even beyond the midterm backlash that a new president usually faces.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been decimated in elections for governor and state legislature since 2010 and need to rebuild their ranks in order to give the party a deeper roster of presidential and Senate candidates in future years and to position the party for redistricting, which will take place after the 2020 election cycle.
Even as soon as early next year, the mere threat of competitive elections in 2018 could be enough to deter Republicans in moderate states and districts from reflexively supporting Trump. Politics can change fast. Barack Obama came into office in 2009 with much wider Congressional majorities and a much clearer popular mandate than Trump. And yet, within a year of Obama’s inauguration, his approval rating was plummeting and a Republican was elected to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts.
For Democrats to find success in 2018 will probably require them to compete in a lot of places. That’s because it’s not clear whether the shift in demographic voting patterns that took place between 2012 and 2016 will accelerate or reverse itself. In states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, there are a fair number of people who voted for Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016, and they might be inclined to give Democrats another chance if they feel that Trump isn’t upholding his promises. It’s also possible, however, that Democrats will be competitive in wealthy suburban districts in Sun Belt states such as Texas, Georgia and Arizona that were once reliably red. Democrats were woefully unprepared for some of these opportunities last month. For instance, they didn’t even field a House candidate in Texas’s 32nd Congressional District in suburban Dallas, even though it Clinton carried the district in a major reversal from 2012.
And sometimes, midterm election cycles offer opportunities in states and districts that few people foresaw ahead of time. The last two times the House flipped, it was precipitated by the opposition party preparing early for the races and recruiting and financing competent candidates in a wide range of districts. Democrats did so in 2006 under Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy,” while in 2010 Republicans were able to compete all over the map in part because they moved faster than Democrats to set up super PACs that had been made legal under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Some of the most important opportunities can escape the attention of the national media. Special elections, such as the one that will likely take place for Montana’s at-large House seat, offer chances to pick up seats and to test out new messages. Battles over voting rights take place in the shadows but can have implications that resonate for years.
Winning a House seat in Montana or expanded access to early voting in North Carolina might not be as sexy for Democrats as dreaming about an uprising in the Electoral College. But Trump won the election, and Democrats probably ought to be thinking about how to win some elections of their own.