Friday, December 16, 2016
"Faithless Electors" - the Legitimacy Dilemma
A lot of the folks pushing this idea are focused on the outcome. They know what they want: they want somebody (anybody, really) other than Donald Trump to be President. In my view, however, process is far more important than outcome, because outcomes are always temporary - processes tend to stick with us for a very long time.
This is why the Electoral College movement concerns me. A lot of folks have called for the end of the Electoral College entirely, and maybe that's a good idea. But that would take a Constitutional amendment - not at all an easy thing to do - and more importantly, we would have to agree on what process of election would replace it.
At this time in our nation's history, it's not at all clear to me that we have the ability to have that conversation. We are so focused on the outcomes of our own tribes that we have lost the sense that we all live under a common set of rules, and that those shared rules and norms matter. Not long ago, telling the truth mattered for political leaders. Yes, there was always spin and shading. But now we have an elected leader who shows a reckless disregard for the truth. He doesn't care. That's a norm lost, sometime we used to agree on that's gone now.
So if there are enough Faithless Electors to turn the tide and prevent Donald Trump from assuming the Presidency, then what? The rules may be crazy, but they're the only rules we have. If those electors throw the race into the House, does the House just turn around and elect Trump anyway? And if someone else is chosen, will that person be seen as legitimate, either by the rest of the government or by the American people generally?
To be fair, I think the legitimacy argument can be overblown, for two reasons. First, because we've become so tribal and outcome-focused, there's a fair amount of delegitimizing whoever's in the White House anyway. George W Bush and Barack Obama have both faced portions of the population who believed strongly that they were illegitimate occupants of the Oval Office. Both managed to execute the duties of the office anyway. Because Hillary won the popular vote, there are folks who are already inclined to see Trump's victory as illegitimate. That goes with the territory.
Second, we tend to have a bias towards imbuing whatever happens with a measure of legitimacy, largely because the consequences otherwise are potentially large and potentially disastrous. Yes, rules can be imperfect; yes, systems can be weak. The preponderance of evidence is that George W. Bush didn't really win Florida (and therefore, the White House) in 2000, but once we settled the legal issues surrounding recounts we never really looked back. This is true because nobody could really envision any alternatives.
This is both the danger of messing with the Electoral College, and the defense against it. If we upset the apple cart, we risk creating enormous uncertainty. As deadlocked as the government is (mostly in Congress), we could risk further crippling it by throwing the executive branch into chaos, with no clear leadership. And we risk opening a massive can of worms that I don't think we, as a nation, are ready to deal with.
So for those participating in the Faithless Elector movement - be careful what you wish for. There may be worse outcomes, either now or down the road, to a President Trump.