road to 270 electoral college map
Is voter fraud a concern in the Electoral College?
01:59 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Robert M. Alexander is a professor of political science at Ohio Northern University and the author of “Presidential Electors and the Electoral College: An Examination of Lobbying, Wavering Electors and Campaigns for Faithless Votes.”

Story highlights

Robert Alexander: Presidential electors have voted against their states' popular vote winner

While the chances that electors could change the outcome of the general election are remote, rogue electors are a problem, Alexander says

With Donald Trump warning groundlessly of a 'rigged election,' the prospect of electors going rogue is risky, writes Alexander

CNN  — 

Much has been made by the Trump campaign about the 2016 election being rigged. Trump himself exclaimed that “We’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”

Surveys of Americans suggest that Trump has a receptive audience. Forty percent of Americans have hardly any confidence in the political system. Only 13% believe the two-party system for presidential elections works. And 55% of Americans actually feel helpless when it comes to this year’s presidential election!

Robert Alexander

Evidence of widespread election fraud is scarce, yet there is one institution that needlessly exposes the system to mischief – the Electoral College. Recently, the New York Daily News outlined a scenario where the Electoral College could prevent a Trump presidency, by serving as a firewall against him. One way to do so would be to encourage a revolt among Republican presidential electors. Seems farfetched? Think again.

Four years ago, I argued that rogue electors threaten the integrity of presidential elections. Donald Trump’s tumultuous week brought this concern back into the spotlight as a Georgia Republican presidential elector (Baoky Vu) vowed he would not support Trump if he were to carry his state. Within 24 hours, he resigned his position, but concerns over elector faithfulness remain.

Vu wrote: “This is the Republican Party of Lincoln and Reagan and Romney and Ryan, not the Party of Donald Trump. As a 2016 Presidential Elector, I am forever grateful to our state Party and our Chairman for bestowing this once-in-a-lifetime honor on me. I take my role seriously and in the face of the difficult choice before us, I will always put America First over party and labels.”

My research of previous presidential electors suggests that Vu is most likely not alone. While many see presidential electors as unimportant vestigial organs, electors do not see themselves that way. In 2012, only 17% of electors supported an amendment to tabulate their votes automatically. Moreover, many electors do consider voting contrary to expectations.

Although so-called faithless electors rarely occur, including ninein the last 17 elections, a surprising number of electors consider doing so. Ten percent of electors gave some thought to defecting in 2004, 11.5% in 2008 (including 20% of Republicans), and 7% in 2012 (including 10% of Republicans). As a point reference, 10% of the Electoral College is akin to the entire state of California (the largest prize in the Electoral College). If such an event were to occur, it would trigger a constitutional crisis of epic proportions.

In my investigations, one elector noted that he believed he had a duty to vote his conscience if he were to find out that his party’s nominee was a “madman” in the time between the nation votes and the time the Electoral College votes.

There is little to stop electors from asserting their independence. While just over half of the states require pledges from electors, few constitutional law experts believe these pledges could be enforced. A handful of states try and discourage faithless electors by criminalizing the act. Most of these states created these laws after electors cast faithless ballots.

Recent members of the Electoral College have been subjected to intense lobbying campaigns. At least one elector in the 2000 election received a death threat, and many others received computer viruses. Birthers in 2008 contacted nearly 80% of electors and urged them to withhold their vote for Barack Obama because of their concerns over his citizenship.

They called upon electors to exercise their independence as a last defense against an Obama presidency. I am certain members of the 2016 assemblage will also be lobbied – especially if Trump manages to win.

Given the acrimonious nature of the Republican primaries and his departure from many traditional Republican beliefs, it would appear that Trump would be ripe for elector defections. It is likely that supporters of Cruz, Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Paul will make their way into the Electoral College.

It is also likely they are not big fans of Donald Trump. Those who consider defecting are different from their more committed counterparts. This is particularly true in their support of primary candidates. These “wavering electors” are far more likely to have supported someone other than their party’s nominee during their party’s primaries.

While they are strong partisans, they are not necessarily attached to the top of their party’s ticket. Trump’s polarizing nature, not just among Democrats, but also among Republicans, may be just the recipe to stimulate multiple defections among electors – thereby providing some “proof” of a rigged election to Trump supporters, regardless of whether or not he were to win a majority of the votes in the Electoral College.

As November 8 approaches, much greater attention will be devoted to the Electoral College. Efforts to get Republican electors to abandon Trump will undoubtedly be met with great resistance and inflammatory rhetoric by his campaign. Trump’s supporters are particularly ardent and prior to his earning a majority of the delegates, we can recall his own warning about riots in the streets if he did not win the Republican nomination.

Trump’s quip that only the Second Amendment could stand between the citizenry and a Hillary Clinton presidency has caused great concern among those who believe such bombast could cause real harm to politicians in this campaign.

Former U.S. representative and shooting victim Gabby Giffords stated that Trump’s words “may provide inspiration or permission for those bent on bloodshed.” Her comments are particularly striking given the warnings of Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser.

Just last week, he said the Trump campaign should prepare for post-election measures, going so far as to suggest a “bloodbath” could occur among Trump supporters. “The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in.”

Some are openly advocating for an Electoral College stop-gap in the event that Donald Trump wins the vote on November 8. Many electors believe they should serve as a check in the system. In spite of the fact that the process has evolved, electors will be asked to have a significant part to play in the 2016 campaign.

Those asserting their independence would surely fuel greater cynicism and augment fears about a broken electoral process and in so doing give legitimacy to Trump’s claims of a rigged system.

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While the likelihood of electors changing the outcome of the general election is extremely remote, the chance that they could feeds into the Trump narrative of a rigged process and encourages additional conspiracy theories among his supporters.

The idea that an election could be rigged through intrigue in the Electoral College is a relatively easy sell given how little Americans actually know about the institution. Fortunately, uncertainty within the Electoral College could be avoided if states were to adopt the Uniform Presidential Electors Act.

Doing so ensures voters would have no surprises from electors and remove any fears elections could be tampered with by this shadowy body.