On Monday evening, Bob Nemanich sat in a red rocking chair on his front porch in a leafy downtown Colorado Springs neighborhood contemplating the future of the republic and his role in it.
Nemanich’s house is a battlement gray bungalow on a busy tree-lined street where he lives with his wife Sue. A “W” banner representing the World Series win by the Cubs fluttered in the breeze. A man walked a dog down the sidewalk as the sun dipped behind the mountains and a skateboarder rolled by.
His neighbors likely did not realize that the 59-year-old high school math teacher in a red Hoosiers hoodie sitting on his front porch is one of 538 people from across the country who make up the Electoral College. They might not even know what the Electoral College is.
“I’m just an average schmuck,” Nemanich said, smiling.
But not every average schmuck will be summoned to his or her state capitol on Dec. 19 to swear an oath and sign official paperwork as part of the formal process of awarding the presidency to Donald J. Trump.
The question this year is whether all 538 will uphold that duty.
Nemanich, an early supporter of Bernie Sanders, is part of a bubbling movement among some national electors to see what— if anything— can be done to keep Trump from the Oval Office. At the very least, they want to see if an organized revolt among them could reform the Electoral College system and its 228-year history of how the United States elects its president.
The Electoral College is the reason a president can win the White House without winning the nation’s popular vote. That happened in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore won more votes across the country, but Republican George W. Bush took the White House when the U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida, thus giving him more electoral votes.
This year, Hillary Clinton won more than 1.5 million more votes nationally than Trump, but Trump took more votes in the Electoral College.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution set up this system as a check against direct democracy, which they did not trust. Because of it, each state is allotted a number of electors based on how many members of Congress the state has. In most states, the winner of the popular vote, no matter how slim the margin, takes all of that state’s electoral votes. The nominee who reaches 270 or more Electoral College votes wins the presidency no matter who racked up more actual ballots cast.
In each state, members of the respective parties choose their electors. Colorado has nine, and Nemanich is one of them.
The Chicago native said he decided to run for one of the nine slots assigned to Colorado in early spring. He had been active in the local and state party for years and his fellow Democratic activists know him as a bit of an outsider, but someone who runs precincts well and watchdogs voting rights. He printed business cards saying he was running for national elector and reached out to other Sanders supporters in his congressional district. He won overwhelmingly at a district assembly on the Friday before the party’s state convention in April, even beating a well-known political science professor from a local college.
At the time, Nemanich believed he was taking on a ceremonial role. Perhaps the most important part: He would see his name in the National Archives.
“I just thought it would be an honor to be a national elector if called upon if the Democrat won this,” Nemanich said Monday. “The next morning, after the election, I realized at that moment that this was not going to be a ceremonial situation.”
He knew his life was about to get more complicated.
“I knew I was in a hot seat,” he said from his front porch Monday. “I knew what a national elector was on a basic civics level. It was the formal instrument to elect the president.”
Since then he has been researching the duties of someone in his position. He has read the history of the institution and Supreme Court decisions related to it. He has read the writings of Alexander Hamilton, including parts of the Federalist Papers in which Hamilton wrote, “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
Nemanich has spoken to a lawyer. He wants to know his options before Dec. 19.
Like 28 other states, Colorado has a state law requiring electors to vote for whomever wins their state. But Nemanich believes decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court afford him the ability to cast any vote he wants— in other words, to vote his conscience, or to become what is called a faithless elector.
Asked Monday if he knew whose name he would write in, he said he did not.
Nemanich voted for Clinton, but said that he did not want to vote for her because it would not make a difference— and he wants to make a difference. She lost the Electoral College, he said, and, at this point, it does not matter what her losing margin is.
The Cubs won the World Series, he said, pointing to the flag on his front porch. “Did it matter what score they won by?” The popular vote, he argues, serves one main purpose: It determines the party from which the state’s electors come. But beyond that, the electors should be free to make their own decisions.
“So essentially, all my Democratic voters here in the Democratic part of town here, they weren’t voting for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “They were voting for the nine of us— but they didn’t know it.”
The math teacher has emailed the Secretary of State’s office to ask what would happen if he cast his vote for someone other than Clinton and was told he would immediately be stripped of his position and someone would be appointed in his place. He asked who would do the appointing and has not heard back. He wrote a blog post about his internal struggle for The Daily Kos that racked up more than 20,000 Facebook interactions and nearly 1,000 comments since he posted it at 5 a.m. Sunday.
“There is a lot of researching going on about this, I am told,” says the Secretary of State’s spokeswoman Lynn Bartels. “From what I know having an elector revolt is something new.”
And being a part of it is something new for Nemanich. He has already received at least one letter at his home from someone he does not know who urged him to work with his colleagues to select “an individual who is more suited to the highest office in our land.” He has told his school’s principal that he is a national elector and said he hopes things don’t get “too hot.”
In the past few days, Nemanich has been reaching out to the eight other Colorado electors and he’s gotten a hold of five. He says they are open to options. One of them, a longtime Democratic activist and former Colorado senator, Polly Baca, told Politico she believes the Electoral College should be a deliberative body able to exercise free choice and use the popular vote as a guide, pointing to Hamilton’s Federalist Papers writings. Some of these outspoken electors have already been dubbed “Hamilton’s Electors.”
As for Nemanich, he sees a few paths forward. Trump could coast in on Dec. 19 and the Electoral College revolt of 2016 could become a footnote in history. Or a coalition among the electors could emerge and support someone other than Trump but palatable to enough of them to rally around as an alternative. Or this: Enough electors could band together to deny Trump 270 votes thus throwing the election to the U.S. House and bringing national scrutiny to the Electoral College process, perhaps even challenging its legitimacy as an institution.
“That sounds idealistic and naive at 59 years old, but that’s our opportunity right now,” he said.
El Paso County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathleen Ricker, who is out of state, said she was not entirely clear what Nemanich is doing but called him a loyal Democrat. State Party Chairman Rick Palacio, who did not return a voice message, has previously said he applauds the work of another Colorado elector, Michael Baca of Denver, who is also working to block Trump from the White House.
From his home in Colorado Springs, Nemanich the local math teacher acknowledges a revolt might amount to nothing. There are plenty of Republican electors, and maybe a group that wants to jolt the system won’t be large enough. Perhaps someone will organize a historic summit of all 538 electors. Any rebellion might fizzle or it might not.
Since 1876 there have been fewer than 100 national electors who have been faithless, Nemanich says, meaning they did not cast their vote for whomever won their state. But no collaborative revolt ever existed. The faithless of the past were solo renegades.
“So, this is the question,” Nemanich said. “Will this be the year when it’s not.”