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Against "Hamilton Electors"

(This draft was written shortly after the 2016 election. I've decided to clean it up and publish it.)

There is a push on right now to encourage members of the electoral college to deny Donald Trump the presidency when they meet next week to officially cast their electoral votes. The effort goes under the name "Hamilton electors," after hip-hop star and Federalist Papers author Alexander Hamilton, who argued that the electoral college should be a responsible deliberative body that can act to prevent the unwashed masses from choosing a dangerous demagogue for president.

I can see the appeal of Hamilton electors from a purely ends-justify-the-means point of view. Trump is a uniquely dangerous threat to our country, and the prospect of four years of a Trump administration is horrifying. But Republican electors are hardly going to be swayed by this kind of argument, so Hamilton elector proponents have been making principled arguments for why it's important for electors to think independently, and why they're justified in voting against the wishes of the general public in their state. However, I don't think these principled arguments stand up, at least in the context of the electoral college as it's currently constituted.

Hamilton electors would make sense in Alexander Hamilton's day. Back then, there was no mass media or public campaigning by presidential candidates. Electors were selected for their ability to weigh up the merits of the various candidates and vote in the best interests of their state. But that's not how we choose electors today.

Consider how the presidential primaries work. Each state is obviously different, but here in Pennsylvania, the Democratic presidential primary was a two-step process. First, my ballot asked me to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. This determined how many votes each candidate would receive from Pennsylvania at the Democratic National Convention.

Second, my ballot asked me to choose which specific people would be the actual delegates who would travel to Philadelphia to participate in the DNC. For each delegate, I could see their name and which candidate they supported. This step of the vote was about more than just who got to put "DNC 2016" on their resume. If that initial ballot was unable to choose a candidate -- because of a contested convention, or a candidate dropping out, or whatever -- those delegates would need to exercise their own judgment in deciding where to shift their vote. So I could pick delegates who I thought would be responsible about their choices in those later rounds, which I (as an ordinary voter) would not have a chance to directly weigh in on. As it happens, I didn't like a couple of the people who were listed as delegates for my candidate, so I ended up casting a mixed ballot at the delegate selection stage.

Contrast the primary process with the actual election in November. There was only one step on my ballot: A list of President/Vice President tickets, of which I was to select one, thereby casting my vote for a slate of electors pledged to that pair of candidates. The ballot gave me no information about who those electors are, much less any opportunity to vote for a mixed ticket. Indeed, when the Hamilton electors effort got going, people found it difficult to locate the names and biographical information about the electors!

In sum, nobody voted for electors on the basis of their individual decision-making skills. We voted for electors as proxies pledged to vote for a particular candidate. And that makes a lot of sense in the current media environment. The candidates campaign directly to the public, and the voters have ample opportunity to make up their minds which candidate they would rather have as president.

When I walked into my polling place, I knew that I very much did not want Donald Trump to be president, and I very much did want Hillary Clinton instead. When I cast my vote, not only was "which candidate do they support" the only piece of information I had on the competing slates of electors, it was also the only piece of information that was relevant to me. I had made up my mind about the candidates for president. The most important thing I wanted from an elector is an assurance that they could be relied on to vote for Clinton, and not Trump, no matter what. Given the choice between an intelligent, fair-minded person open to persuasion from either side, versus a hack who lives only to support Hillary, I'd have chosen the latter as an elector in a heartbeat. As much as I'd like to see Trump denied the presidency, I find it hard to support Hamilton Electors as a general system.


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