The “complications” Hamilton mentioned of electing a president include populist “heats and ferments” and attempts by foreign governments to intervene in the election.
When he wasn’t the focus of a hit Broadway musical, Alexander Hamilton was one of the strongest proponents of the U.S. Constitution. 67 of the Federalist Papers – essays written to try and win support for the Constitution’s controversial government structure – were authored by the Caribbean-born founding father.
In one of those papers, Hamilton defends having the Electoral College, rather than the popular vote, elect the President.
The Electoral College is the body that actually elects the President. Although it is called by a single name, all of the electors never actually “meet” together. Electors are chosen in each state after the results of the election are certified, and they usually cast votes in the given state’s capital building.
This year, the day of that vote will be on Monday, December 19th. The states then have until December 28th to send the final votes to the Senate and the National Archives Administration. The official election of the President is on January 6th, when the votes from each state are counted and certified by the Vice President before a joint session of Congress.
The question of whether “faithless electors” – electors voting for a candidate other than the one they were pledged to — could deny President-elect Donald Trump the presidency has brought renewed interest in the Electoral College process. Media estimates of so-called “Hamilton electors,” who will vote for a “moderate Republican” in protest against Trump, range from one to 20 — although most of these electors seem to be Democrats, according to the elector group’s website. A recent video featuring celebrities, including Martin Sheen and Mike Farrell, seeks to convince Republican electors to do just this. Currently, Trump is projected to win a majority of the Electoral College by 37 votes.
Under the design of the Electoral College, Trump could lose the presidency even if faithless electors didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. The Constitution of the United States specifies that a President requires a majority of the votes of the Electoral College to assume the office. If no candidate does, the House of Representatives is left to decide.
But just what would Alexander Hamilton, founding father and framer of the Constitution, have to say about “Hamilton electors?”
When he defends the Electoral College in Federalist Paper No. 68, “The Mode of Electing the President,” he seems to envision electors first and foremost as another kind of representative of the people.
“A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass,” he envisions, “will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation [as electing the President.]”
At the same time, with this “discernment” seems to come a capacity for checking and qualifying the “popular wish” in the context of the national interest.
The “complications” of electing a President he explicitly mentions include populist “heats and ferments” and attempts by foreign governments to intervene in the election.
Because the Electoral College was decentralized in each state, not meeting at “one time, in one place,” Hamilton saw the proposed system as offering safeguards against political intrigue, lobbying, and shocking results.
“Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption,” he writes, about the designing of the system during the Constitutional Convention.
Hamilton even proposes that the Electoral College could act as a safeguard against foreign interference in the election of a President. Only a decade removed from the Revolutionary War, Hamilton is likely referring to fears that the new American republic’s democratic principles would be undermined by European powers – either by interference in the election or in the Electoral College itself.
“The most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches… chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,” he writes. “How could they better gratify this than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
The saving grace of the Electoral College, Hamilton contends, is the fact that its electors would not be national politicians, and thus they would be less likely to fall for the offers of foreign powers.
Writing in an era where citizens were doubted as patriots or as loyalists to the Revolution, it is unlikely Hamilton could have anticipated that cyberattacks would interfere in the electoral process.
It’s also clear that Hamilton intended that the popular choice of President would nearly always be the choice of the Electoral College. He attacks the “opportunity… [of]… tumult and disorder” in the election, and by wanting the electors to maintain peace, he implies he didn’t want them to frequently incite popular anger by rejecting the projected winner of the presidency.
Still, Hamilton’s charge that the Electoral College afforded a “moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” does appear to offer significant latitude to the electors to vote freely.
Throughout the history of the United States, 157 electors have voted against their pledged candidate, most recently in 2004. However, the last time more than one elector switched votes was in 1912, and “faithless electors” have never cost a President-elect a majority of the Electoral College.
The legality of electors voting against the candidates they are pledged to is a legal grey area. Although the Supreme Court upheld state laws requiring electors to “promise” – or be “pledged” — to vote for a candidate, no federal judicial decision has held that electors can be required to vote for that candidate, or that they could be legally punished for their vote.
Some state laws already have legal codes allowing for this requirement. In Michigan, for example, a vote by an elector against their pledge is declared void by law.
Without a clear ruling, it’s probable that if a vote of the Electoral College changed the result of the presidency – particularly if President-elect Trump was denied a majority – the result would be challenged in court. A group of three Democratic “Hamilton” electors in Colorado are already filing a legal challenge to be able to vote for a candidate other than Hillary Clinton.
As the day of the Electoral College vote nears, it still remains unlikely a change in the election result will occur. In addition to the fact electors are usually chosen from ranks of loyal party members or even those associated with the candidate in some way, another candidate would likely be unprepared to assume the office. Trump’s transition team has spent over two months on preparations — such as filling office appointments and planning the inauguration. By comparison, the Hillary Clinton campaign had made no appointments known except for her running mate, Tim Kaine.
While it is unclear exactly what the final vote will be in January, history says that a significant change to the projected winner is very unlikely. However, the decisions of even a few “Hamilton electors” could be interesting to watch, and appeal to ongoing debates within American government that date back to when the Constitution was first adopted.