What does it take to be a rebel, when your instinct is to follow the herd?
That’s the question that comes to mind when you consider the Hamilton Electors, the growing movement of Republican electors who are choosing not to vote for Donald Trump next Monday. That’s when all 538 members of the Electoral College will traipse to the capital cities in their states and cast their votes: 306 are Republicans and 232 are Democrats. In a normal election year, the Republicans would vote for their party’s nominee. But, as we all know, this was no normal election year.
Chris Suprun, a presidential elector in Texas, is the only one who has publicly come out to say that he is not voting for Trump. This is a brave move, because it means going against the will of the millions of people that he represents in his state. As a faithless elector, he faces criminal charges, threats from angry Trump supporters, and intense pressure from the Republican party to toe the line.
And he’s far from alone. Other Republican electors are thinking about voting against Trump, but are choosing to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. The bipartisan Hamilton Electors–named for the founding father who believed that members of the Electoral College should vote their conscience–have identified 7 Republican voters who are willing to vote against Trump.
Their aversion to Trump has motivated these electors, both Democratic and Republican, to join together to elect another Republican candidate. “He’s said so many nasty things that I would be fired for as a teacher. And all this conflict of interest! I don’t have to go through all the things,” says Jerad Sutton, one of the Hamilton Electors. “Someone has to say that’s not okay, and more Americans did. But the way the math works out, not as many electors did.”
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard constitutional law professor, recently joined forces with Boston lawyer R.J. Lyman to launch an organization called “Electors Trust” to provide legal counsel to Republican electors who are considering voting against Trump. Lyman has identified 17 other voters (besides the Hamilton Electors’) who are considering casting their vote for a different candidate. “A week ago there was one,” Lessig tells Fast Company. “Today, there are at least 20. The point is that it is becoming more and more pressing for them to consider whether they are going to exercise this vote of conscience.”
And it only takes 37 Republican voters to switch sides to at least stall Trump’s election.
If enough voters defect, the decision will move to the House of Representatives. There, the top three vote-getters–Trump, Clinton, and whomever defectors pick as their alternative–would be on the table. The Hamilton Electors have said they are considering banding together to write in John Kasich as their choice, but this is still very much under discussion. These legislators would then vote about who becomes president. “It’s a heavily Republican institution, obviously,” Lessig says. “They would have the option to confirm Trump, or they would have the option to confirm somebody else.”
For the entire nation’s history, the Electoral College was seen largely as a formality. These voters don’t have any particular qualifications, other than having been nominated by their party to do this job. They’re not more educated or more moral than the rest of us: They’re just everyday citizens. But on Monday, they might be able to play a role in changing the nation’s history.
How does one even begin to make such a potentially earth-shattering decision that could plunge the country into chaos? How does an everyman or everywoman go against the will of millions of Americans they were chosen to represent?
Lessig, who has been working closely with possible defectors and trying to understand their thought processes, says that there are several ways to view the situation. Some of them are clearly worried about the instability that would ensue should they change their vote. But, at the same time, it’s worth noting that the country is already facing instability given the recent revelations that Russians may have interfered with the democratic process in this country.
And an argument could be made that the Electoral College was an “emergency brake” mechanism created for circumstances like these. “We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had 56 elections where we’ve not needed that emergency brake,” Lessig says. “Now here’s the 57th where, at least in the eyes of many Republican electors, they’re facing the choice about whether to support someone they think raises all sorts of concerns about constitutional qualifications. You might say this throws the country into instability or you might say that everything has been stable so far because the country has never had the sufficient moral reason not to support their party’s nominee.”
What concerns are those?
Lessig points out that their reasons for rejecting Trump must be substantive. After all, they would be going against the will of their fellow citizens and neighbors–and 62 million people in the entire country–who believed that Trump was the right choice. This cannot just be about him being “temperamentally unfit,” which is a subjective value judgment.
A more compelling reason to change their vote could be troubling issues or conflicts that did not fully come to light before November 8; American citizens would therefore not have known about them when they were going to the polls. For example, since the election Trump has refused to divest himself of foreign assets, which could potentially lead to violations of the Emoluments Clause, the provision of the Constitution that appears to ban payments from foreign countries.
In addition, the country’s intelligence agencies have determined that Russian-backed hackers interfered with the election, hacking email servers at the Democratic National Committee, the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, and other political organizations of the Democratic party. By voting their conscience, Electoral College members would be making an important statement about how foreign powers should never be able to tamper with our democratic process. Voting against Trump is even more important, argues Lessig, given that a Russian official admitted that Kremlin officials conferred with members of the Trump campaign during the election. (The Trump campaign did not deny those contacts, though the president-elect has expressed doubts that Russians were behind the hacking of Democratic groups.)
“When you’ve had a candidate who has basically admitted complicity to conspiring and colluding with a foreign government that has been found by our CIA to have interfered with our election, I don’t know how any elector with integrity could vote to uphold that resolve,” Lessig says. “As the CIA director put it, this is a kind of 9/11 for our democracy.”
Voting against your party’s candidate may seem like a terrifying decision, but Lessig points out that the founding fathers created the institution for complex circumstances such as those the country is facing now. “This is the election the Electoral College was created for,” says Lessig.”But so long as it’s here, the constitutional judgment that they are suppose to exercise, they should exercise carefully. “
With reporting by Ruth Reader