Faithless Elector Watch: This Election Ain't Over!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Dec. 15 2000 1:32 PM

Faithless Elector Watch: This Election Ain't Over!

Make that three times the press called the 2000 presidential race too early. On election night, it was Gore, then Bush. With Al Gore's Dec. 13 concession, it was Bush once more. Practically speaking, though, the election won't really be over until this Monday, Dec. 18, when the Electoral College convenes. What will happen then? As Chatterbox previously demonstrated, it's a statistical probability that we'll see one faithless elector, given that we've seen one elector go faithless in seven out of the previous 13 presidential elections. (The odds for faithlessness become much higher if you include the 63 Greeley faithless electors of 1872, though Chatterbox is willing to treat them as an anomaly.) Chatterbox judges the chances about even that we'll see two faithless electors and that as a consequence the election will be tossed into the House of Representatives (where Bush would be all but certain to prevail). And Chatterbox thinks there's roughly a 30 percent chance that we'll see three faithless electors flip to Gore, possibly on the grounds that he won the popular vote, and give Gore the presidency. (Three or more electors flipping to someone other than Gore, or abstaining, or practicing some other variety of faithlessness would, like two, would put the race in the House.)

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A faithless Gore Electoral College victory would have to overcome a few obstacles, of course. The easiest would probably be Gore's pledge not to accept the votes of faithless electors (subtly reinforced in Gore's concession speech when he said, "I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College"). Only slightly less easy to overcome would be the likely challenge from Congress when it gathers Jan. 6 to count the electoral votes. The Democrats' temporary control of the Senate probably means Gore would be safe. And a little less easy than that would be persuading the appallingly results-oriented majority on the Supreme Court to face up to the fact that precedent and the Constitution allow the Electoral College to do whatever it pleases. (That's why we've gotta amend it outta there and switch to a national popular vote!) Even this, though, should be fairly easy. (For a fuller discussion of all these issues, see "Ask Doctor Faithless!")

Chatterbox is perplexed by the virtual news blackout on the "faithless elector" scenario since Gore conceded. The only news stories Chatterbox can find today even containing the phrase "faithless elector" were an AP story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, this Frank J. Murray story in the Washington Times, and this online column by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post comparing Murray and the Times to "Japanese soldiers fighting in a cave long after the war is over." (Nothing today even from the Wall Street Journal's dogged Tom Hamburger!) Murray reports this interesting tidbit:

While the recount still was at an impasse, the vice president's campaign actively studied ways to recruit enough electors to win, even as it publicly repudiated free-lance efforts to "kidnap" a few votes, the Times learned from an authority on the Electoral College who was advising the Gore organization.

"Gore is three electors away from a victory, two away from a tie. Some might defect," he said, refusing to respond when asked if any recruits were on board.

What Murray fails to point out is that the Bush campaign would be ill-positioned to criticize such Gore efforts given the Ford campaign's all-but-certain flirtation with an elector-flipping strategy in 1976. As Chatterbox documented yesterday, two highly probable participants were Dick Cheney and Jim Baker.

But we digress. Why is the media dismissing the faithless elector scenario? Partly because it's anxious to fall in line, however briefly, with the "reconciliation" scenario laid out by Bush and Gore, and partly because political reporters are tired of the campaign trail and eager to get on with their Christmas shopping. Mostly, though, it's because of an interesting epistemological problem in journalism: How do you cover that which you can intuit but not demonstrate? Even the most ambitious media canvass of presidential electors, reported Nov. 13 by The Wall Street Journal, managed to reach only 120 out of 538 electors, and the 120 were a mix of both Democrats and Republicans. Four Republicans made vaguely noncommittal remarks, but since then two of these have made clear to Chatterbox that they're sticking with Bush. (The other two aren't returning phone calls.) Moreover, actually covering Electoral College proceedings this Monday is something the national news media organizations can't afford to contemplate. In his comic faithless elector novel, The People's Choice, CNN's Jeff Greenfield imagines two TV news executives trying to pull it off:

"Lucky us," said Crenshaw. "So let me see if I got this right: We're going live to Albany; Sacramento; Augusta, Maine; Lansing, Michigan; and Nashville, Tennessee."

"Maybe," DeRossa said.

"Maybe," Crenshaw repeated, and he began to tap the conference table with his forefinger. ... "Why 'maybe?'" Crenshaw asked, with excessive politeness.

"Because," Weiss answered, "we're only talking about states where we know, or strongly suspect, that there will be some kind of defection or confrontation. My own guess is that those electors most likely to defect are keeping their own counsel; it would be much harder to undo their acts after they've voted. To be safe, you'd need to pick up the actual vote in all 50 states."

"You're telling me I need the capability of 50 simultaneous remotes?"

"Fifty-one, if you're counting the District of Columbia, but that should be a reliably Democratic vote. Still--"

As Greenfield demonstrates, the empirical techniques of journalism aren't much use in covering faithless electors. There's nothing to do now but wait and see what happens.

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