On Monday, December 19th at 9am, I walked up the steps to the Colorado State Capitol. It was 16 degrees and a small crowd had gathered, holding signs that ranged from “Stop Trump” to “Electors: Vote Your Conscience”. My family and I had traveled to Denver on this day to voice our tremendous concerns about President-elect Trump, to show our support for an Electoral College “revolt” (however far-fetched it seemed), and to simply be a part of history.
I knew that it was almost inconceivable that 37 Republican electors would defy the odds and not vote for Trump. But on the previous Friday, a ruling by Colorado’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals suggested that removing an elector after voting has already started would be unconstitutional. For a brief moment, I saw a glimmer of hope.
At 11:30am, we were allowed to enter the Capitol to watch the electors cast their votes. By the time I got there, the actual room was full, but there was a small doorway that opened to the main rotunda of the building. My sister and I sat on the floor right against the door frame, and over one hundred people stood behind us, filling the stairwell.
We waited in trepidation for the electors, who were tied up for 45 minutes as they deliberated with lawyers over whether they could cast a vote for someone other than Clinton (the winner of our state’s popular vote). Suddenly, I heard the gentle murmur of singing behind me. A small group of people had started singing “America the Beautiful,” and in a matter of seconds, the entire crowd, inside and outside the room, were singing together. It felt eerily calm, and although you could feel the nervousness in the air, there was also this sense that we felt a lack of control over the situation. We had done what we could – we voted in November, we protested outside, and now we were here to see what would happen. The peaceful singing continued with the National Anthem, “This Land Is Your Land”, and “We Shall Overcome.”
After what seemed like a lifetime, our nine electors silently streamed into the room. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. Relax, Emma, I told myself. At the end of the day, they’ll probably just all vote for Clinton, which is great. And yes, I was proud of my state for choosing Clinton in the popular vote. But there was more at stake today. The Electoral College was created to test the President-elect and to ensure that the right candidate was placed in office. It was also created, as Hamilton described, to make sure that there was no foreign involvement in our election. All of these were issues that were deeply at stake on Monday. The Electoral College had never revolted en masse before, but if there were ever a time to do it, it would be now. I wanted the Colorado electors to be able to vote for whomever they wished, not because I didn’t want Clinton to get all the votes she deserved, but because I wanted them to establish a precedent that the Electoral College could, and should, serve as a true test for every President-elect.
The event started off fairly calmly, and the ballots for President were handed out and completed. But then, when the votes were counted, there were eight votes for Clinton and one vote that was discarded. Elector Michael Baca had voted for John Kasich, who was not listed on the ballot, and thereby had defied Colorado law. That is, up until the 10th Circuit Court case. The crowd went nuts, screaming at our Secretary of State Wayne Williams to allow Baca’s vote to count. But instead, the electors were asked to nominate a replacement elector, and Celeste Landry was sworn in right then and there. Unsurprisingly, she voted for Clinton. Her oath included a mandate that she vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in our state, an oath that had been challenged minutes before by the electors.
For me, the whole scene went by in a blur, full of shouting people and uncomfortable bureaucrats and exasperated electors. But after I exited the Capitol, I began to reflect on what had just happened. Despite the recent court ruling, our Republican Secretary of State chose to ignore what the court deemed was likely unconstitutional under the 12th Amendment, and decided to strip Michael Baca of his privileges as an elector. The attempted precedent was completely discarded.
Across the country, the same tune was playing out. Trump won the electoral college convincingly, as predicted on November 8th. Only 7 electors defected – 5 from Clinton and 2 from Trump – and even though this was more than in any other election in American history, it was not enough. For Michael Baca, he was willing to face charges for not fulfilling his oath as a Colorado elector.
Why was he one of the only ones who defected?
Why did the prospect of an Electoral College revolt fail?
One possible explanation has to do with evolution and our basic human nature. Back in our hominid days, we faced severe punishment for standing up against the status quo, or the group norm. If you stood up against the majority opinion, you could be eaten alive, or banished by the community. We did not speak out because we were afraid of punishment. Even though our society has changed drastically since then, our brains have not adapted. Psychological studies show that if we have an opinion that is different from the group, our brains often treat that very negatively and attempt to sway us towards the majority opinion. And they usually win.
So even though the electors knew that they wouldn’t get eaten alive if they voted unconventionally, they knew that there were still things at stake: their job, some money, perhaps some legal and social ramifications. They were afraid of the consequences of going against the status quo. In states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, they were afraid of going against the votes of their fellow electors. And yet, the Electoral College was set up to potentially block a candidate that was unfit to be president. All but two Republican electors didn’t budge.
Another possible explanation comes from economics. It’s the idea of cooperation – that if two or more entities are operating in a market, it only makes sense to cooperate with each other if every entity does so. If even one defects, it throws the whole effort out. The Electoral College is so unique in that all the votes are cast in the respective state capitols, independently of every other state. It is hard to know how everyone else will act, and so each state acts independently, and the votes are brought together in front of Congress in early January. There was a very small chance that at least 37 electors would “cooperate” and change their votes, so as expected, it didn’t happen.
These are just two ideas, but they evoke both our fundamental nature as human beings, and the messiness of democracy. Perhaps our societies have evolved faster than our brains – that is, maybe a massive revolt of the Electoral College has never happened because humans are not wired to go against the group norm on such a large scale. This week, thinking of the individual electors, especially in states that went for Trump, brought up names such as scared and spineless. But ultimately, they are human.
The trick for us, during the Trump administration, will be to use this fact of human nature to our advantage. Our tendency to stick with the group norm has not changed, but that doesn’t meant that the group norm itself cannot change. Our immense, yet noble challenge going forward is to change the group norm – and to stay on the right side of history.