The Return of the Rogue Electors
Sometimes a member of the Electoral College doesn't vote the way he's pledged to vote. But will that actually change the outcome?
Tomorrow may be Election Day, but the next president will not officially be selected until next month, when the Electoral College casts its ballots. Usually this is just a formality, but this is a weird year, so naturally people are spinning scenarios where an elector changes the outcome by voting for someone other than the candidate at the top of the ticket. This isn't just an abstract possibility: Robert Satiacum, one of the Democratic Party's slate of electors in Washington, has announced that he will not vote for Hillary Clinton even if (as expected) she carries his state.
This is not a new development—I wrote about Satiacum here at Reason last month—but it has been getting more attention as Election Day comes closer. That is partly because the polls now show a closer race, so a single electoral vote is more likely to matter. And it's partly because Satiacum, a Native American activist who supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, has stopped suggesting that he might simply step down rather than vote for Clinton and started saying things like "I hope it comes down to a swing vote and it's me. Good. She ain't getting it. Maybe it'll wake this country up." Hence headlines like the Seattle Stranger's "Fuck This Fucking Guy: Robert Satiacum, the Washington State Democratic Elector Who Won't Vote Clinton."
Another Democratic elector in the same state has now told the Seattle Times that he has "not ruled out" the possibility of voting for someone to Clinton's left. And on the other side of the aisle, a GOP elector in Virginia reacted to Donald Trump's Access Hollywood tape last month by calling on the Electoral College's Republicans to dump Trump. A lot has happened since last month, and Trump is not widely expected to carry Virginia anyway. But if nothing else, that's a reminder that Clinton isn't the only candidate whose electors could defect.
Of course, there's a big difference between what could happen and what is likely to happen. So what are the chances that anything like this will alter the results?
There is, in fact, a pretty extensive history of rogue electors voting for whoever they want. (This happened in six of the last 12 elections.) But those have been protest votes that don't actually affect the outcome. If Clinton wins decisively this year, we may well see several Republican electors make a point by casting their ballots for Evan McMullin, Gary Johnson, or some symbolic figure who wasn't actually running, such as Mitt Romney. And if Trump beats the odds and outpolls Clinton tomorrow, some disaffected Democratic electors might write in Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jill Stein, or someone else. But if the margin is actually tight enough for such a gesture to change who wins, it is extremely unlikely that we'll see anything like that happen.
Except, perhaps, in Washington state. Satiacum might just be venting, but he sure sounds serious—and he's not a party flunky, so he might not respond to the usual sorts of political pressure. Forecasters will have to keep him in mind.