Faithless Elector Watch: The Abstention Option

The Wall Street Journal, which seems to be the only national news organization keeping its eye on the faithless elector ball, today reports that Democratic consultant Bob Beckel is continuing to brave public disapproval (“Don’t you try to steal this election, you son-of-a-bitch,” one caller told Beckel’s voice mail) by trying to peel electors away from Bush. The Journal reports:

From the outset, [Beckel] says, he simply planned to identify electors not legally bound to vote with their party and get them statistical information showing that Mr. Gore won the popular vote nationally and in Florida. He says his hope has been that “electors with a conscience” will abstain rather than vote for a candidate who didn’t win the popular vote. He has stressed that his operation is in no way connected with Mr. Gore, who has said he wouldn’t acceptvotes from electors who switched sides anyway.

Chatterbox was not previously aware that Beckel was seeking abstentions rather than outright flips to Gore. (Incidentally, abstaining should not be confused with not showing up. Electors who fail to show up this Dec. 18 can be replaced–apparently it happens all the time, and “replacements are found by scouring the hallways of the state capitol for likely candidates,” according to Lawrence Longley and Neal Peirce’s Electoral College Primer 2000. Don’t leave home without it! But we digress.)

Is it possible Beckel, in seeking abstainers rather than flippers, has refined his method to accommodate Gore’s refusal to accept the votes of faithless electors? It would certainly have that effect. As Chatterbox pointed out earlier, it’s entirely conceivable that Gore himself would be in a position to cast the deciding Senate votes on whether to allow Bush electors to switch their allegiance and make Gore president. But since electors who failed to vote at all would not be giving their votes to Gore, Gore could accept the prize (the presidency) without violating his pledge!

If this is Beckel’s thinking, though, he’s outsmarted himself because all the abstention option can do is throw the election to the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority would be sure to reinstate Bush as the winner. Let’s do the math. Assuming Bush has Florida sewn up, the Electoral College count now stands at 271 for Bush, 267 for Gore. Three electors flipping from Bush to Gore would throw the election to Gore. But two, three, or a hundred Bush electors abstaining would all have the same effect: Bush would lack a sufficient number of Electoral College votes to win, but Gore would still lack a 270-vote majority; he’d be stuck at 267. (A majority of all Electoral College votes cast doesn’t appear to be good enough; Article II of the Constitution states that “The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed [italics Chatterbox’s].” Chatterbox is assuming here that the Electoral College will have its full roster of 538 electors, of which 270 constitutes a majority. The prospect that the current tussle in Florida will leave the Sunshine State with no electors at all strikes Chatterbox as highly improbable.)

Back to the drawing board, Bob.

Meanwhile, reader Dan Troy writes in with a creative suggestion:

In the increasingly unlikely event that the courts permit additional recounts that show Gore as the winner of Florida, it seems clear that the Republican-dominated state legislature is prepared to award the electors to Bush. I humbly suggest that the Gore campaign turn to the Democrat-dominated West Virginia Legislature to award their electors to Gore. Assuming Gore is the certified winner of New Mexico and Oregon, and I believe he is, West Virginia’s five electoral votes would put Gore over the top in a perfectly legal fashion. While West Virginia voters may be upset that their votes have been overturned, it would not seem unreasonable to expect that the normally Democrat-leaning electorate would buy into a “fair is fair” notion should the Florida Legislature thwart the will of their electorate. The mere threat of such an action on the part of West Virginia would probably be enough to prevent Florida from any chicanery.

Chatterbox’s only criticism of this scenario is that Troy offers it merely as a threat aimed at inhibiting the Florida Legislature. (Also, Chatterbox doesn’t know whether West Virginia state law allows the legislature to appoint presidential electors when election results are in dispute, as Florida state law apparently does.) C’mon, Dan, aren’t you really hoping the Republicans move first to override the voters–reportedly the Bush team is very close to endorsing legislative intervention–so that Democrats can beat them at their own game? It’s Chatterbox’s belief that the Florida Legislature’s gestures in the direction of appointing electors have already robbed Republicans of the argument that Democrats like Beckel who favor elector faithlessness are taking the election away from the voters. Indeed, Beckel, unlike Florida legislators, can argue that his contemplated actions honor the popular vote!

Of course, it’s conceivable that the Republicans might respond to a West Virginia legislative jujitsu by finding some Gore state with a Republican-dominated state legislature (New Jersey?) to pull the same stunt. …