UPDATE: This story was originally published on Dec. 6, 2016. On Jan. 17, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the Colorado case that could determine whether presidential electors have the right to vote their consciences or are bound to follow the state’s popular vote.
You might have heard about the Hamilton Electors, seven of the 538 members of the Electoral College who are working on a plan to use the Electoral College system to keep Donald Trump from the White House.
The movement has roots in our state, and The Colorado Independent has been all over the story for the past two weeks. But it’s a complex issue, so we thought we’d break it down.
So what is a national elector?
A national elector is a member of the Electoral College, selected by their peers months ago. Each of them will officially cast their vote for president on Dec. 19. All 538 of them across the country will travel to their respective state capitols to do so. That will be the formal act of electing our next president even though Election Day was on Nov. 8.
Each state has as many national electors as they have members of Congress. So Colorado has nine. They are either Democrats or Republicans depending on which candidate wins the state.
And who are Colorado’s electors?
The four electors who have signed on to this stop-Trump plan are former Democratic State Sen. Polly Baca of Denver, 24-year-old Northern Arizona University grad student Micheal Baca of Fort Collins (no relation to Polly) who drives for Uber and Lyft, 34-year-old Greeley math teacher Jared Sutton, and Bob Nemanich, 59, also a math teacher, who lives in Colorado Springs.
The other five electors are Democratic activists Terry Phillips, Amy Drayer, Mary Beth Corsentino, Ann Knollman and Rollie Heath, a state senator from Boulder.
These nine Coloradans make up Colorado’s members of the Electoral College. There are nine of them because that’s how many members of Congress Colorado has based on its population. They are Democrats because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in Colorado on Election Day. If Donald Trump had won Colorado there would be nine Republican electors.
Why are the rebellious electors calling themselves ‘Hamilton Electors’?
Because they believe Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s view of the Electoral College was as a deliberative body that would act as a fail-safe against someone becoming president who is unfit for the job.
They point to Hamilton’s writings in Federalist Papers No. 68, in which Hamilton wrote, in part, “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.”
The Hamilton Electors might also be called “faithless electors.”
Laws in 29 states say electors must cast votes for whoever won the state, but a group of lawyers working for the Hamilton Electors says it plans to challenge those laws as unconstitutional.
So far there are four Democratic Colorado electors on record as being part of the elector revolt, three from Washington state, and one Republican elector in Texas.
Polly Baca says she has spoken to all but one of the Colorado electors and expects they’ll be on board with the eventual plan if it shakes out.
At least one of the nine electors is on records with a lukewarm response.
On Dec. 8, Pueblo County Democratic Chairwoman Marybeth Corsentino told her local newspaper, The Pueblo Chieftain, she doesn’t think much of the effort. “My plan right now is to follow through and vote for Hillary Clinton,” she said. “But if there was truly a way to keep Donald Trump from being president . . . but I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, State Sen. Rollie Heath told The Independent is taking a wait-and-see approach before saying anything firm.
“At this point we’re committed to vote for Hillary and a lot would have to happen to change that,” he said last week. “I’m going to kind of keep an open mind and see how this whole thing plays out.”
How did our Democrats in Colorado become national electors anyway?
They ran for the position in the spring during the Democratic Party’s precinct caucuses, which are neighborhood gatherings of local Democratic activists and loyal party people.
Nemanich printed business cards as part of his campaign, saying he was running as a national elector, and handed them out. He made his pitch and said he was an early supporter of Bernie Sanders. He was elected in March. At the time, he expected he would cast his vote for whoever won, either Sanders or Clinton, and that would be it because he expected the Democrat would win the national election. He thought it would be nice to 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 told The Colorado Independent. “The next morning, after the election, I realized at that moment that this was not going to be a ceremonial situation.”
Some party activists running for national elector even ran on the platform that they would not vote for whoever won the state. One of them was TC Bell, who lives in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District.
“At the time I was actively telling people that if I was elected I would refuse to cast my ballot for Hillary or Trump as a way to protest the Electoral College system and stand up for the millions of Coloradans who refused to vote for either candidate,” he says.
Bell lost to Micheal Baca, who kickstarted the potential elector revolt shortly after Election Day.
OK, so what is their plan exactly?
The Hamilton Electors believe Trump is unfit for the presidency for a variety of reasons and so they believe they can use their positions in the Electoral College to keep him from becoming president— if enough of them agree to help.
Their plan is this: Persuade enough fellow electors to join them in rallying around someone else. Because more national electors are Republicans, they assume the alternative would have to be a Republican. And even as Democrats they are OK with that because it’s likely a Republican they might choose— Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s name was at the top of the list — would be better than Trump. (Kasich shot down a trial balloon already, saying in a Dec. 6 statement that while the effort is well-meaning, he thought it would divide the country even further. “The election is over,” he said. “Now is the time for all of us to come together as Americans.”)
“I think we all agree that Mr. Trump is a danger to this country,” says Polly Baca of her elector colleagues in Colorado. “I have been involved in every presidential race since 1960 and this is the first time that I am literally in fear for my country because of this particular person.”
Baca stresses that Trump is “not the president-elect” until the 538 members of the Electoral College cast their votes on Dec. 19.
How many other electors would they need to persuade?
A candidate needs to win 270 Electoral College votes to become president. Donald Trump has 306 projected votes to Clinton’s 232. That means there are 306 Republican electors and 232 Democratic electors.
So the Hamilton Electors would need all 232 Democrats to go along with a Trump alternative as well as 38 Republicans. In other words, they need a miracle.
Another way: If enough Trump electors defected to deny Trump his 270-vote majority, then the election would go to U.S. House of Representatives and members of Congress would choose the president from among the three top vote-getters in the Electoral College. Each state’s House delegation would get one vote, so the presidency would boil down to a simple majority of 26 votes.
Just to be clear: So far these are Democrats who say they won’t vote for Clinton?
Yes. It sounds counterintuitive.
Nemanich, the math teacher from the Springs, says it is important for his fellow Coloradans to know that when they voted on Election Day for president, really, they were voting for nine people who weren’t even on the ballot.
“So essentially, all my Democratic voters here in the Democratic part of town here, they weren’t voting for Hillary Clinton,” he says. “They were voting for the nine of us— but they didn’t know it.”
Law Professor Greg Magarian of Washington University in St. Louis says it’s like how you steer a car: “You turn the steering wheel and you’re not controlling the car, you’re turning the steering wheel and you’re making the wheels turn and the wheels are controlling the car.”
In other words, the presidential candidate is the steering wheel, the electors are the wheels.
So it makes sense that some Clinton supporters in Colorado who voted for her would want the state’s nine electors to cast their votes for Clinton regardless of how those electors feel about Trump.
“He needs to cast his vote for Clinton — she won our state and he is a Democrat,” commented one reader on a recent story about one of our electors. “He’s a smart guy. Hillary Clinton took Colorado so it’s clear. I’m sure he won’t change his vote to an ‘also ran,’” wrote another.
Addressing that has proven a hurdle for some of Colorado’s Hamilton Electors when explaining what they are trying to do.
Just watch this video of Nemanich making his pitch to a skeptical fellow Democrat at a library in Colorado Springs on Saturday.
Are there any Republican electors talking about this?
There are now.
A Republican elector in Texas named Christopher Suprun wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday saying he could not vote for Trump and urged his fellow electors to rally behind an alternative.
Others, though, have panned the idea. A GOP elector in South Carolina, Matt Moore, who chairs the state party and has been bombarded with emails, told The Independent he thinks the effort is “ridiculous.”
Closer to Colorado, Republican elector Karl Allred in Wyoming says Trump might not have been his first choice for president, but the voters in his state elected him in his position to represent their views. Trump won Wyoming.
“If I was to do anything other than represent the view of the voters who placed their trust in me that would be dishonest,” Allred told The Independent. But, he says, everyone has heard about the movement and what’s going on in the Electoral College. He has gotten plenty of inquiries about it, too.
In Utah, Republican elector Kris Kimball, one of six in that state, told The Independent she plans to cast her vote for Trump even though he wasn’t her first choice in the GOP primary.
“The other electors, they feel a responsibility to represent the voice of Utah,” she said, adding that the state’s voters “wanted Donald Trump.”
Asked what she might do if the courts said she could vote for whomever she wanted on Dec. 19, she said, “I would have to wait and see. I don’t know until I see that happen. At this point in time I have to go with how the people in Utah voted. I was elected to represent whatever the outcome of the election was.”
What about the laws in 29 states requiring electors to cast their votes for candidate who wins the state?
Lawyers for the Hamilton Electors say they plan to challenge those state laws as unconstitutional.
A nationwide group of lawyers called Hamilton Defenders says it is working on lawsuits right now. Lawyers for the group also say they are willing to defend any potential elector who agrees to become faithless or offer any other support and counsel to electors thinking about it.
Potential electors can confidentially correspond with a Hamilton Defender attorney at the group’s website.
Their first lawsuit hit Colorado Tuesday, Dec. 6.
And this could go down quite a quick legal rabbit hole. Say a raft of lawsuits hits several states in multiple federal jurisdictions, judges rule differently, and the parties appeal? Supreme Court, here we come.
The state laws have been efforts to stop electors from going “faithless,” says George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University and author of the book “Why The Electoral College is Bad for America.” But, Edwards adds, they have never been enforced, and in his opinion they are unconstitutional.
“The Framers expected electors to exercise discretion,” he told The Independent.
Is this movement all about stopping Trump?
That is the ultimate goal, but there might also be a consolation prize.
The Electoral College, while obviously an important aspect of American democracy, is not that well known as an institution among the general public. The system has its defenders and its critics.
Some of the Hamilton Electors believe their movement might bring enough public attention to how the Electoral College actually works, that even if it fails it has done some public good.
Democratic New York Congressman Charlie Rangel and California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer have filed bills to abolish the Electoral College, and Bernie Sanders has called for an assessment of the system.
The Broadway show ‘Hamilton’ is a smash hit right now in pop culture. Isn’t life weird?
Yeah, it is.
So let’s talk about Hamilton the Founding Father and Electoral College guy, not the musical, for a moment. What might he think of all this?
Traditionally, the Electoral College has not acted as an independent deliberative body, so it’s hard to say Hamilton’s master plan of the minor elite overriding the mob has worked in practice. Instead the Electoral College has settled in as a rubber stamp for the winner-take-all model among the states, especially with all those state laws binding the votes.
Magarian, the Wash U law professor, wonders if Hamilton was maybe a bit too quick to dismiss the wisdom of democracy for a system created to channel the wisdom of elites.
“If you want to trace the irony a little bit further, Trump is in some ways Hamilton’s populist nightmare, but he’s also in other ways Hamilton’s kind of guy,” Magarian says. “Wealthy, well established, varied property, businessman. Donald Trump’s resume to Alexander Hamilton— without showing [anything else]— I think Hamilton might look at a guy like Trump and say, ‘Oh, OK, here this is the sort of person I might expect my beloved elite body to select.”
And also, think about this: Who are Colorado’s current elites, per Hamilton? A sitting and former state senator, sure, but also a graduate student employed as an independent contractor in the sharing economy and two math teachers— one of whom told The Independent in his first interview, “I’m just an average schmuck.”