Hillary Clinton speaks at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Oct. 24, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock.com)
Dear President-elect Trump,
Well, that was quick. Within 24 hours of my first open letter pledging to hold you accountable for missteps, you fired up another twitter storm. Your topic was the Electoral College. It’s easy to see why.
Hillary Clinton’s popular win by more than 1 million votes makes you only the fourth president in history to gain an Electoral College victory without support from at least a plurality of the people you will govern. In fact, tiny popular vote margins in three key states tipped the Electoral College balance in your favor: Michigan (12,000 out of almost 5 million votes cast), Wisconsin (27,000 out of 3 million), and Pennsylvania (68,000 out of 6 million).
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but did you see the tweet from John Dean, former White House counsel to President Nixon?
“What happens when we discover that the Russians rigged just enough votes in Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania for Trump?” he wrote.
Don’t believe everything Newt tells you
Now you’re turning to the Electoral College for help. But four years ago, you despised it.
On November 6, 2012, you tweeted: “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.”
Back then, you thought President Obama would lose the popular vote, but win in the Electoral College. You called for “a march on Washington” to “stop this travesty.” In tweets that you have since deleted, you even urged a “revolution.”
Now you need the Electoral College to override the popular vote that you lost decisively. Throughout the media, critics are asking, “Is it time to eliminate the Electoral College?”
At 5:30 am on November 15, 2016, you provided your new answer, starting with this: “If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily.”
Including Florida on that list projects panic. You spent more time there than in almost any other state. As for New York, it defies credulity to suggest that fellow New Yorkers don’t know you by now.
With respect to California, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CBS News’ John Dickerson that you would have picked up “at least 2 million votes,” if you’d campaigned there. No evidence supports that claim. Even so, it doesn’t answer the overriding point that yours is only the fourth election in American history where the popular and electoral vote diverged. (The others were George W. Bush in 2000, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.)
But there’s a bigger trap in Speaker Gingrich’s argument that you have now echoed in a tweet. It reinforces the budding false narrative that you have a popular mandate. For the reasons explained in my first letter, you don’t.
Don’t believe everything you read
Your second tweet at 5:30 am on November 15 was: “The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!”
Your tweet gives ammunition to those who focus on the speed with which you decry rules that appear to be working against you, only to embrace them when they turn in your favor. The Electoral College that you described as a “disaster for democracy” in 2012 is now “genius.” For your latest flip-flop, The Washington Post awarded you an “Upside-Down Pinocchio for an unacknowledged change in position.”
Perhaps the inspiration for your second tweet came from reading Dr. Larry Arnn’s Wall Street Journal op-ed that morning. He’s president of Hillside College and defends the Electoral College as “anything but outdated.” His conservative credentials include board membership on the Heritage Foundation and, in 1996, founding chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative, which prohibited racial preferences in state hiring, contracting, and admissions. Stated simply, he’s one of your growing circle of new best friends.
Alexander Hamilton is more than a hit play
“Consider for a minute why the Electoral College was invented,” Dr. Arnn writes.
Characterizing your million-plus vote loss as a “whisker,” Dr. Arnn’s historical discussion ignores the most important source of contemporaneous insight into the origin and purpose of the Electoral College: Alexander Hamilton. Conservatives regularly cite The Federalist Papers in defending an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. (You’ve said that you want your Supreme Court nominee adhering to that approach.) In Federalist No. 68, Hamilton explained some of the concerns that led to creation of the Electoral College.
On one hand, Hamilton observed, the framers believed that the will of the people deserved respect. But they also worried that citizens were vulnerable to an unqualified demagogue — someone with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” lacking “a different kind of merit to establish him in the esteem and confidence…necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.” The Electoral College became the nation’s safety valve.
What if every vote counted?
Dr. Arnn concludes that binding electors to support the candidate who wins the national popular vote would be a “disaster.” He worries about the 10 states and the District of Columbia — representing 165 electoral votes — that have already signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It binds each signatory state’s electors to vote for the national popular winner. If a handful of states accounting for another 105 electoral votes sign on and bring the total to at least 270, the Compact will become effective without a Constitutional amendment.
Among the remaining states that in various combinations could put the Compact into effect are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Don’t be surprised if those who voted against you now turn their attention to state legislatures that could render the Electoral College irrelevant by 2020. At some point, the constitutionality of the Compact would probably be litigated, but serious scholars believe it would survive.
What would Hamilton do?
You can see the irony of your precarious situation. In an unprecedented bipartisan display, the most respected leaders of your own Republican party outlined publicly and repeatedly the dangers that you, their nominee, would pose to America and the world. But the story of the 2016 election is that the people could be trusted. And they reached their decisions, even as FBI Director James Comey, unnamed Bureau leakers of false information, Russian hackers and Wikileaks distorted the election in your favor. Those clouds will always hang over you.
Dr. Arnn glossed over the fact that on December 19, the Electoral College could still approve the nation’s collective decision and deprive you of the Presidency. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia impose some type of requirement that electors vote in accordance with their states’ individual voter totals. But the penalties for noncompliance typically are insignificant. And in the remaining 21 states—including Pennsylvania—electors are free to vote as they see fit.
Would Alexander Hamilton be among the more than 4 million signatories to a current petition urging electors to do what they believe best for the country, rather than blindly follow their individual states’ voting results? We’ll never know. But you’re making a mistake by inviting a focus on the original motivations for the Electoral College. They work against you now.