Will Hamilton electors throw away their shot?

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  • Robert Alexander: Hamilton made the case for Electoral College, but before rise of political parties
  • Electoral College was originally conceived as a fail-safe and electors chosen for "discernment," he writes

Robert M. Alexander is a professor of political science at Ohio Northern University and the author of "Presidential Electors and the Electoral College: An Examination of Lobbying, Wavering Electors and Campaigns for Faithless Votes." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Alexander Hamilton is enjoying quite an influential renaissance. The Broadway musical bearing his name received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations and took center stage of the political universe when Brandon Victor Dixon (aka Aaron Burr) made a direct appeal to Vice-President-elect Mike Pence at a performance shortly after the election.

Robert M. Alexander
He stated: "We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights." He implored the new administration to work on behalf of all Americans. President-elect Trump responded via Twitter, tweeting that Pence was "harassed," and that the cast should "apologize."
In recent days, a different imprint from our Founding Father has emerged and sparked debate: the "Hamilton elector," an organized effort to persuade electors to vote against Donald Trump. In short, many have capitalized on Hamilton's cultural popularity and invoked his vision of electors serving as a deliberative body. A group of Hamilton electors has committed itself to preventing a Trump presidency when electors convene December 19. Their intentions draw heavily from Hamilton's approach to the role of the elector. To understand the Hamilton elector, we need to know the context for Hamilton's Electoral College.
In Federalist 68, Hamilton made the case for the Electoral College, proclaiming that if the manner of selecting the president was not perfect, it was at least excellent. Rather than direct election by the people or selection by Congress or state legislatures, the framers believed that a temporary body of electors, chosen for the specific duty of selecting the president, would be the best means to choose our national leader.
Hamilton contended that electors would be "most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." The idea was that the Electoral College would be a deliberative body. The manner of choosing electors was left to state legislatures. While they could be selected directly by the citizenry as they are today, they could also be selected by a state's legislature.
Electors were expected to use their own judgment when casting their two votes -- with the stipulation that one of their votes could not be for a candidate from their own state. The candidate receiving the most votes would become president and the candidate receiving the next most votes would become vice-president. Many believed that after the presidency of Washington, few candidates would be able to muster a majority of electoral votes and elections would fall to the House of Representatives.
The rise of political parties (which Hamilton himself deplored) dramatically altered the role of the Electoral College. The emergence of party tickets transformed the office of elector from one of independence to one of servitude to the party. The election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, well-dramatized in Lin-Manuel Miranda's rendering, also heralded a major but less-explored change in the office of presidential elector.
Both candidates in 1800 ran on the Democratic-Republican ticket, with Democratic-Republican electors casting one vote each for Jefferson and Burr. Recall there was no distinction in electoral votes between president and vice-president and that the top two candidates receiving votes would become president and vice-president. Electors cast the same number of ballots for both Jefferson and Burr and the election was then thrown into the House of Representatives.
After 35 deadlocked ballots, the House selected Jefferson as president. Hamilton, no fan of Jefferson, weighed in on the situation, arguing that while he did not like Jefferson's principles, at least he had some. Conversely, he wrote that Burr was "bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country." His take on Burr is relevant as today's Hamilton electors are saying similar things about Donald Trump.
Before the next election, the 12th amendment was adopted, requiring electors to cast one vote for president and one vote for vice-president. The rise of parties also meant electors were no longer to be chosen for their discernment, but for their loyalty to party. In fact, those electors choosing to vote contrary to expectations have come to be known as "faithless electors," hardly a term of endearment. It's hardly a surprise, then, that the current defecting electors have adopted the moniker of a father of federalism and the world's hottest theater ticket.
While defections are rare, nine of the past 17 elections have witnessed faithless votes. The fact that electors, despite party affiliation, can vote independently has not been lost upon the populace. Elsewhere, I have documented lobbying efforts aimed at electors to change the results of the popular vote. This includes appeals to the Electoral College in 2008 to deny Barack Obama the presidency due to accusations he was not an American citizen. These campaigns have gone relatively unnoticed by the general public, yet have occurred with surprising regularity.
By contrast, this year's efforts, undertaken both before and after the election, have been squarely in the public's eye and have attracted great notice. These proposals have rested on Hamilton's assertion that the Electoral College process "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."
My studies indicate that many electors have maintained Hamilton's vision of their bringing their own judgment to the job. Although they are indeed party loyalists, they enjoy their freedom and many contemplate their choices. Just 17% of electors from my surveys would support an amendment to tabulate votes automatically, thereby removing the independence of electors. Moreover, approximately 10% of electors from my past surveys consider going rogue.
While the term "Hamilton elector" has become part of the vernacular this election cycle, it is clear many electors consider Hamilton's original conceptualization when looking to fulfill their duties. This can be troubling to many Americans looking for certainty when they go to the ballot box. Critics would further charge that maintaining elector independence today exposes the presidential selection process to the very "cabal, intrigue, and corruption" it was designed to prevent.
Nonetheless, many electors have subscribed to the Hamiltonian vision throughout this year's campaign. Two Republican electors have resigned their positions due to their inability to support Trump, and one more, Chris Suprun became the first Republican on record to state he will not be voting for Trump. His announcement makes the Hamilton electors' lobbying campaign that much more interesting. Although a long shot, it would appear that an audience among some Republican electors exists.
With the news of potential Russian interference in the election, 10 electors wrote an open letter to James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, requesting a briefing on all items related to Russia's alleged involvement in the campaign.
Citing Federalist 68, they contend that a fundamental reason for the office of elector was to prevent a "desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils." Forty electors have now signed on to the letter, with Suprun being the only Republican elector to do so. Although the Clinton campaign has been relatively quiet regarding recount efforts, they did release a statement supporting this effort.
Still, it does not appear that mass Republican defections are in the offing. The Trump campaign has indeed been hard at work trying to prevent such an occurrence.
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What is more likely is that we are about to witness the most faithless votes cast in an election -- apart from ones involving the death of a candidate -- since 1836, when 23 Virginia electors withheld their votes from vice-presidential nominee Richard Mentor Johnson because of his relationship with an African-American woman. There really is little precedent for the goings-on in this year's Electoral College.
With all this tumult, the prospect of anything but a Trump presidency emerging out of the December 19 Electoral College vote is truly unlikely. Of course, the Cubs did win the World Series, so I suppose anything is possible.