When President-elect Donald Trump claimed victory on election night by virtue of his having amassed a majority of the electoral votes, Hetty Rosenstein was devastated. Like many of her fellow Democrats, she despises the Electoral College, which she considers antiquated and unfair and not representative of the will of the people.
“It’s an old system based on slavery,” she told me. “And look at this terrible result.”
While her opinion is not unusual, her role in the process is: Rosenstein is a member of the Electoral College, one of just 14 individuals in New Jersey and 538 across the nation who on Monday will cast the official ballots to determine the 45th president of the United States.
In the weeks since the election, many Americans have expressed their extreme dissatisfaction with the Electoral College. After all, though Trump had more electoral votes — 306 vs. 232 for Democrat Hillary Clinton — Clinton’s margin of victory in the popular vote was 2.8 million. Talking heads everywhere have advocated abolishing the Electoral College, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill intended to do just that. At least one Republican elector has already declared his intention to disregard precedent and abstain from voting for his party’s candidate, and a larger movement is afoot to convince 36 more “faithless electors” to do the same, which would push Trump’s total under the 270-vote threshold needed to clinch the presidency; the decision would then go to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
In Rosenstein we have someone who, rather than speaking in reverential tones about the 240-year-old tradition, or reveling in her ability to participate in a rare moment of history, is sick of the entire process, or at least the little she or anyone else can figure out about it. A longtime Democratic activist, she has worked for the NJ office of the Communications Workers of America, representing more than 70,000 working families in the state, for 35 years, the last eight as area director. She was asked by someone from the Democratic National Committee to serve as a NJ elector and readily agreed, though she admitted she didn’t understand what it entailed.
Rosenstein’s confusion led to her darkest hour: On Nov. 9, she awoke feeling “horrible” that she would have to vote for Trump, not realizing that because Clinton won New Jersey, that’s who would receive the state’s electoral votes. She was particularly relieved, as she had resolved as an elector not to vote for Trump under any circumstances.
“I would go to jail before I vote for Donald Trump,” said Rosenstein, who lives in South Orange. “I realize it’s an interesting thing to say since I don’t have to, but I would.”
Describing herself as a secular Jew, Rosenstein said her opposition to Trump is related to her Jewish identity, which, she said, is also a reason she is committed to fighting for social and economic justice. She expressed concern over what she termed the president-elect’s “dog-whistle racism,” including his proposals to register Muslims living in the United States and a widespread deportation of immigrants.
“The Jewish people have a real responsibility to not be racist and to take action against racism,” Rosenstein said.
Little did she or even many political experts know she was never at risk of having to vote for Trump.
Until now, the Electoral College vote was little more than a symbolic official procedure, a formality, a rubber stamp.Since the Electoral College is largely ceremonial — and because the laws vary from state to state — most everyone I spoke to was hazy on the details. It seems that prior to the general election, political parties from each state select electors from their respective parties, so Democrats and Republicans have their own sets of electors. The total electors are determined by the number of the state’s representatives in Congress, plus two, for the senators. (New Jersey has 14 electors based on its 12 U.S. representatives and two senators). Washington, DC, is granted three electors, though they have no representation in Congress.
The electors of the party that won their state’s popular vote are thereby selected as the state’s representatives for the Electoral College, and the electors from the losing party don’t get to vote. (Maine and Nebraska do things a little differently, but in the interest of brevity, let’s leave them out.) With regard to Rosenstein, had Trump won New Jersey, the GOP electors would have voted, and she and the rest of the Democratic contingent would have sat it out.
But there’s still the matter of whether the electors are obligated to vote for their party’s candidate. Twenty-one states, including New Jersey, allow their electors to vote for whomever they choose; 29 have imposed legislative requirements to vote according to the state’s popular vote. However, the penalty for voting for someone other than the party choice is relatively minor, for most states a fine not exceeding $1,000.
If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around all this, you’re not alone. Richard Lau, a distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Rutgers, confessed his own ignorance. He said when one of his children was in fifth grade he was invited to speak to the class about the presidential election and a student asked about the Electoral College.
“I had to laugh because I didn’t know the answer then, and I don’t know it now,” he said.
He had difficulty justifying the need for electors at all, instead of automatically awarding candidates the state’s electoral votes. The system, he said, “is sort of anti-democratic.”
Paul Frymer, a professor of politics at Princeton, admitted to “Googling” over the past few weeks to learn more. Part of the reason he doesn’t have a good sense of it, he said, is that the rules vary by state, and it’s always been “automatic.”
“I don’t understand it. Most of us don’t because it has never really come up,” he said, adding that “there’s never been enough incentive to get rid of it, but there’s not enough to have it, either.”
Although 99 percent of electors have voted for their party’s candidate in the past, millions of Americans have signed petitions urging GOP electors to vote their conscience, and money has been raised to cover any fines the electors receive for violating state laws to do so. At least one law firm is offering free legal advice to any Republican electors considering leaving Trump off the ballot.
“I hope the other electors make a decision to vote in accordance with the will of the people and act to protect the country,” Rosenstein said. Addressing the Republican electors, she said, “You’ve made a commitment to law [but] you may have to violate that. You might get fined, you might get in trouble, but you’ve got to do it.”
As for herself, she admitted that when she was asked to serve, “I never realized it would be such an undemocratic thing.”