‘Faithless’ electors, faithful citizens hold out final hope to unseat Trump
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As 538 Electoral College members prepare to vote Monday in state capitals across the US, grassroots letter-writing campaigns, protests and last-minute statehouse vigils are urging electors not to choose Donald Trump as their next president.
Reporting from Tallahassee, Florida
Most Americans and election watchers assumed the US presidential election had wrapped up almost six weeks ago, when Republican candidate Donald Trump surpassed the required majority of 270 electoral votes to be declared the next owner of the @POTUS Twitter handle come January 20, 2017. Democrat Hillary Clinton conceded defeat on November 9, a day after the election, and Trump wound up with 306 electoral votes, safely in the winner’s corner.
So why are so many people saying it’s not over yet?
A hint of rain threatened the northern Florida skies as a hundred or so cheerful protesters gathered Saturday afternoon in front of the statehouse in Tallahassee (known locally as “Tally”), the capital of the Sunshine State. They hailed from different points along the political spectrum and from all over this 447-mile- (721-km-) long peninsula in the country’s third-most-populous state after California and Texas.
Tallahassee, meaning “old town”, was the name Apalachee Indians used to describe the abandoned villages of earlier Native Americans. Several of those gathered here this weekend invoked the expression “hoping against hope” when FRANCE 24 asked why they had gathered to rally, chant and socialise on the steps of the Old State Capitol building on an otherwise gloomy Saturday afternoon.
The expression itself seemed to sum up the American condition as a tumultuous 2016 draws to a close, a sentiment that could be better described as, “Beyond hope, yet somehow maintaining faith in hope.”
But what are these protesters hoping for, exactly?
Nothing less than a complex chain of events that would be unprecedented in US history. They are hoping rogue electors from both parties come together to vote for a third “compromise” candidate, most often cited as current Ohio Governor John Kasich, who famously voted, along with many other prominent Republicans, against the GOP nominee on Election Day.
Saving the country from a demagogue
The vitriol and bitterness unleashed by the 2016 presidential campaign has put the Electoral College system under an intense spotlight. The debate about the democratic credentials of the electoral and popular votes got especially heated this year since Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump won the electoral one.
A recent CBS poll found that 54 percent of Americans believe their president should be elected by popular vote (as is the case in France and most democracies) versus 41 percent who prefer to stick with the devil they know. The Electoral College system is a holdover from the days of slave states, when each state was allotted a slate of electors based on its number of senators (each state gets two regardless of population) plus its number of representatives.
But now some rogue electors are hoping they’ve found a way to “dump Trump”.
Since late November, Republican electors around the country have been inundated with requests to use the Electoral College’s “safety valve” option when the electors vote on Monday. That effort was spearheaded by the Hamilton Electors, a group of electors who have declared their intention to assign their vote to a consensus candidate other than Trump.
They were inspired by a line from Publius, a pseudonym used by US founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison to write the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that was published in New York newspapers in the late 1780s urging citizens to ratify the new US Constitution. Federalist 68 states, “The office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
These rogue electors believe the nation’s founders included this line as a fail-safe, an exit strategy of sorts, in case citizens were duped by a demagogue.
Standing alongside the Hamilton Electors are Vigils for America and Unite for America, which bills itself as “a post-partisan movement of concerned citizens and volunteers, united against the unprecedented threat of an unqualified candidate taking our nation's highest office” and released a public service ad last week featuring Martin Sheen and other actors from The West Wing TV series.
Over the weekend, Unite for America issued a new call to action following the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia tried to intervene in the election to harm Clinton’s campaign.
On Sunday, a new hashtag, #SendItToTheHouse, started making the rounds, calling on electors to exploit a provision that states that if neither candidate ends up with the 270 electoral votes necessary for a majority, the election should be sent to the House of Representatives.
‘A disaster for democracy’?
The same system that Trump called “a disaster for democracy” in a Nov. 2012 tweet has now been transformed in the eyes of the president-elect. "I never appreciated it until now, how genius it was," he said after he won the majority of Electoral College votes.
The mad scramble to coordinate anti-Trump efforts has thrown together unlikely bedfellows: “Bernie-or-bust” people now making peace with die-hard Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein supporters in their last-ditch effort to keep Trump from claiming his ‘bigliest’ [sic] prize the White House.
But despite mounting alarm over Trump’s ability to govern, more than 330 Associated Press interviews with electors from both parties appeared to suggest that public complaints are falling on deaf ears with partisans who have “little appetite for revolt”.
Still, Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig, who has been offering pro-bono legal counsel to electors considering “flipping” their vote, told Politico on Tuesday that 20 Republican electors are considering a vote against the president-elect.
Only 37 “faithless” electors are required to change the course of history. So far only one Republican, Texas’s Christopher Suprun, has come out and explained why he intends to vote against Trump.
A ‘tiny blue dot’ adrift in a sea of red
At Tallahassee’s Blackdog Café, Susan Gage, a Tally resident for the last 27 years and former Florida Public Radio journalist, sipped coffee and hailed her adopted hometown as “one of those tiny blue dots in the red corner of a red state”, a place where university professors and veterans hang out together at the local VFW to talk about corruption in local politics.
Current Florida attorney general and Republican elector Pam Bondi received a $25,000 contribution to her 2014 re-election campaign from Trump under murky circumstances; no one’s talking much about trying to flip her vote.
Locals familiar with the Florida political climate told FRANCE 24 that with loyalist Republican electors like Bondi, Trump’s personal lobbyist (now transition-team member) Brian Ballard and Senate President Joe Negron who has publicly stated he would not vote for anyone but Trump even just one faithless elector in this state is a “Hail Mary”.
Florida is among the 29 of 50 states with so-called “binding” laws that require their electors to mirror the popular vote in their state. But in most of these states, the penalty for “faithless” voting is only a small fine, which has never been tested in court.
Gage has become more politically active since she left journalism, and so she made an appearance at the protest on the Old Capitol steps, even though she does not believe any Florida electors, several of whom she knows personally, will be flipped on Monday.
“They’re all Rick Scott ‘bots,” she said, referring to the polarising second-term governor, a Republican. “The Republican Party in Florida works like this: You do as you told, or you’re shafted.”
But Gage doesn’t have any kind words for the other side, either. “You think the Democratic Party is anemic at the national level? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen them in Florida.”
‘Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, Donald Trump Go Away!’
Lakey Love, the main organiser of Saturday’s protest, held a megaphone and led the group through a practice round of chants as she handed out flyers: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Donald Trump go away!” “Hey, hey, let’s be clear, Donald Trump’s not welcome here!” “Support the electors” and “Flip the vote!”
Love is a PhD candidate at Florida State University who said she’s had plenty of opportunities to learn how to protest during her six years in Tally. She referred to other organisers as her “team” and continually asked for input as she passed the mic around so people could share their thoughts. Many of them know each other from other protests. Sadly, they anticipate there will be many more to come.
Jeannette Petersen was hooked after attending Love’s previous protest, a march that came together right after Election Day. “There were thousands of us marching for six blocks past every Florida court building,” Petersen said. “That was very moving.” This time, she’s here because she believes in the cause. “I support the nationwide protest and I believe there are Republicans out there who will vote their conscience.”
Petersen agreed with Gage that in the world of partisan Florida politics, Republican electors “have their own fears”. She is holding out hope that just enough “electors with a conscience” will avail themselves of the secret ballot to vote for a third candidate, leaving Trump short of the 270 majority.
Love (and Valentines)
As the afternoon wound down, Green Party member Kim O’Connor from Tampa gave a short speech. “Let’s not forget,” she noted, “that Trump had 112,000 more votes in Florida than Hillary Clinton but he still earned less than half of the electorate … so why should he get all the electors without a mandate?”
Just as speakers from Students for a Democratic Society took the podium, a lone stocky man in a red “Make America Great Again” T-Shirt and matching hat started heckling them from across the street, waving a large Trump flag and blasting a screeching baby sound from a PA system.
“Ignore him, he just wants attention,” Love said quietly, and pumped up the volume on her own PA system. But the Trump supporter would not be ignored. He crossed Monroe Street and taunted the protesters, mocking their signs and telling the women there to “pull your big-girl pants up and move on”.
“I find this protest amusing,” he said, scanning the thinning crowd for a target, letting his eyes fall on a gay couple. “Why don’t you try to make America great again instead of just whining about the fact that you lost?” But the couple just linked arms with other protesters and turned their backs on him.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, the pro-Trump demonstrator, Gary Snow, said he had recently moved from Chicago and had voted twice for Obama. “I moved here six months ago and immediately started volunteering for Trump,” he said. He began to tick off all the reasons for his political switch: “First, is health care because anything’s gotta be better than Obamacare I had to cancel my insurance when my premium went up to $1,900 a month for single coverage. Second, I think he will build a wall. He owns a construction company, so why not build one? Maybe not as big as he thought it would be, but he’ll put it where it needs to be.”
One of the protesters holding a big “America Trumped by Putin” sign, Vietnam vet and law librarian Tom Baxter, became visibly upset with the posturing on immigration and strode over to Snow. “When did you do your service?” he asked the younger man. Things got a bit heated until six Capitol police officers strode up in lockstep, smiling but firm. “Is there a problem here?”
There was a collective shaking of heads. “OK,” said the cop, “Because everybody has a right to be here. But I’m going to ask you, sir,” (pointing to Snow) “to turn that sound machine off for a while.”
Snow nodded but paced back and forth, staring at the group as though waiting for someone to poke him.
Soni Greer and her wife, Beth White, smiled at each other and lit a packet of wild sage, “to ward off this weird energy”. They were both carrying the event’s most professional-looking signs, including a red and white one reading, “Electors, your vote can save our nation.”
Someone suggested that maybe the Trump protester needed a hug. But no one volunteered. The rally came to a close as Love and her assistant organiser, whose name, Tao Althea Valentine, means “the way of truth and love”, handed out candles and asked for a minute of silence for “peace on earth”.
Instead of obeying the silence Snow yelled into his megaphone, “Tell me when was the last time a candidate won the popular vote AND won the presidency!?”
“Obama,” responded a few members of the crowd. “Now please, a moment of silence.”
Snow wasn’t ready for silence yet. “How’d that recount go?” he asked.
“What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!” the crowd chanted, turning their backs to the man who would not be silenced. He slipped a Trump Halloween mask over his head and started addressing people at a traffic light.
“I just have to hope that if the people in power see that enough Americans are hurting and scared, maybe they’ll have to hear us,” said Valentine.
As she dragged the heavy PA system to a friend’s waiting car, organiser Love said she was headed home to grade papers. She lamented all the attention the Trump supporter garnered from two local television stations, whose reporters barely spoke to any of the hundred peaceful protesters. “It’s kind of sad,” she said, “that they give him so much attention. He was only one guy and there were so many of us, just being boring and peaceful.”
“Yeah, but at least we have hope,” said Valentine as she tucked a stack of signs under her arm.