Members of the Electoral College are not bound by the Constitution to vote in accordance with the majority of voters in their particular states. Twenty-six states have either pledges of faithfulness to the party standard bearer or laws mandating it. However, the pledges are not legally binding; and although the laws can impose penalties, in most cases they are fines, and they do not nullify the vote. Thomas H. Neale, a specialist on the Electoral College for the Congressional Research Service, maintains that “most constitutional scholars believe that once electors have been chosen, they remain constitutionally free agents, able to vote for any candidate who meets the requirements for President and Vice President.”
If Trump wins Michigan, thirty-seven of his 306 electors would have to abstain or cast their vote for another person in order to deny him the necessary majority in the Electoral College. If thirty-eight of the Trump electors were to vote for Clinton, she would have the majority. If neither obtains a majority, the presidency would be decided by the House of Representatives.
Since 1796, there have been 156 “faithless” electors, as those who voted differently from the popular vote in their states are called. In these cases, the votes were counted, and no sanctions was imposed. Here are some examples. In 2000, a Democratic elector from the District of Columbia abstained from voting in protest of the District’s lack of Congressional representation. In 1976, a Republican elector from the state of Washington, pledged to vote for Gerald Ford, voted for Ronald Reagan. In 1972, a Nixon Republican elector from Virginia voted for the Libertarian presidential candidate. In 1968, a Nixon Republican elector voted for George Wallace, candidate of the American Independence Party. In 1956, a Democratic elector form Alabama voted for a former circuit judge in his hometown instead of Aldai Stevenson. In 1948, a democratic elector from Tennessee voted for Strom Thurmond, the States Rights Party candidate, instead of Harry Truman. In 1836, twenty-three electors from Virginia abstained, denying necessary Electoral College votes to their Democratic Party candidate for Vice-President, as a result of allegations that he had lived with an African-American woman. In 1796, a Federalist elector from Pennsylvania voted for Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson instead of the Federalist candidate John Adams.
In the 2016 presidential elections, one of the reasons why a Republican elector might be persuaded to vote for Hillary Clinton is that she obtained at least one and one-half million more votes than Trump nationally. Such a Republican elector might perceive that the national political will should be given greater priority than faithfulness to the electoral results in a particular state or loyalty to a political party.
Peter Beinart, associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, maintains that “for the first time in modern American history, there’s a plausible case for urging the electors to vote their consciences.” He has identified four reasons why Republican electors should abstain or vote for a candidate other than Trump. (1) The danger that a Trump presidency would pose to the environment, inasmuch as Trump has repeatedly said that climate change is a hoax. (2) The threat of nuclear war. Trump in March and August made comments that suggest that he considers the use of nuclear arms to be a viable option for U.S. foreign policy. (3) The possibility that Trump might severely curtain freedoms of press, association and speech, particularly in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and especially with respect to Islamic citizens of the United States. (4) Trump might attempt to ignore the constitutional limits of presidential authority, thus provoking a constitutional crisis.
I am more inclined to argue in a different direction, maintaining the Trump is morally unqualified for the highest political office in the land. One Trump elector has publicly expressed his reservations about voting for Trump, precisely on moral grounds. The elector maintains that his pledge to the Republican state party of Texas was made before Trump became the nominee, and that "as a Christian, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Trump is not biblically qualified for that office."
Like the elector from Texas, I reflect on the question of whether or not Trump has the moral qualities to hold the office of president. But unlike our friend from Texas, I am guided not only by the words found in the Christian Bible, but also by the sacred texts formed by the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century discourses of the charismatic leaders of the global popular movement for a just, democratic and sustainable world-system. In accordance with a philosophical and ethical perspective so formed, I am deeply troubled by Mr. Trump’s scapegoating of ethnic and religious groups, blaming them as the source of problems that we confront, for the purpose of obtaining votes. With a minimum of historical consciousness, we cannot fail to be aware of the sad and tragic consequences of this form of behavior in the history of Nazi Germany as well as the American South. And as we reflect on the possibilities for the future, we certainly must conclude that there can be no tolerance for politicians who indulge in such behavior, for it is fundamentally incompatible with the processes necessary for creating a more just world. Scapegoating is a morally unacceptable strategy. When it works, the electoral results are invalidated morally, and if the constitutional and legal means for the nullification of the election exist, those means ought to be utilized.
These are exceptional times, defined by the multidimensional structural crisis of the world-system, and by the economic decline of the neocolonial hegemonic power, which, confused by its decline, turns more and more to military aggression. The people do not understand these dynamics very well, but they understand enough to feel that things are out of control, and to know that the corporate elite, the financial speculators, and the ruling political class are not committed to taking steps that would benefit the average citizen. Meanwhile, the Left has not been able to offer a viable alternative. The Green Party has the right idea, in that it has formed an alternative political party, standing against the corporations. But its platform is ahistorical, unphilosophical, superficial, and ethnocentric (see “The Green Party Platform” 8/26/2016). It does not have the capacity to persuade the people of its legitimacy as an alternative force to the liberal and neofascist currents of thought that pervade the land in a confusing manner, currents which are tied to corporate interests.
In this scenario of national decline and global economic, ecological, and political crisis; and in the absence of responsible and informed national leadership; the people are vulnerable to a skillful message that taps into their anxieties and fears. In this situation, we would do well to recall the defense of the Electoral College by one of its architects, Alexander Hamilton (see Federalist Papers #68):
It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.
It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.
This process of election affords a moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It would not be too strong to say that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters preeminent for ability and virtue.
A denial of the presidency to Trump by the Electoral College would not be the definitive solution that we need in this time of national and global crisis. It would provoke even more conflict than presently exists, with Trump supporters enraged. And neither Hillary Clinton nor an alternative Republican selected by the Republican-controlled Congress would possess the necessary moral and intellectual qualities to lead the nation in these exceptional times of crisis. It would, however, prevent a possible fall into fascism, and therefore, it is a step that we as a nation should take, if the necessary political will could be marshalled.
What we really need is not available in the short term. It is only possible in the long term, through the commitment and dedication of people who understand the true meaning of leadership. What we need is a true party of the Left, capable of providing our people with a comprehensive and global analysis of the challenges that we confront, and capable as well of connecting to concrete concerns of the people, not by tapping into their anxieties and fears, but by believing in their intelligence, respecting their values, and calling upon their hopes. The success of Sanders and Trump during the 2016 presidential elections, through which the people expressed their rejection of the political establishment of both parties, in spite of the superficiality of the one and the neo-fascism of the other, demonstrate the possibilities for a well-formulated national project proposal coming from the Left. (For further reflections on an alternative party of the Left, see “A socialist revolution in the USA” 2/1/2016 and “Popular democratic socialist revolution” 1/15/2016).