Polly Baca, a Democratic elector from Colorado, worked on her first presidential race in 1960. She was part of Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign staff in 1968 and was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was shot. “At that time I was disillusioned, upset, in so much pain—I was absolutely despondent about our political system and about ready to give up on it,” she says. And yet even when Richard Nixon was elected five months later, she says, she didn’t fear for America the way she does now. That’s why she’s joined a last-ditch effort to get the Electoral College to unite behind an alternative to Donald Trump. “The Electoral College was created and envisioned by Alexander Hamilton to stop a demagogue like Mr. Trump,” Baca says. “If we aren’t going to use the Electoral College to stop a demagogue like Mr. Trump, there’s no reason to have it.”
Can it work? Probably not. While a handful of Democrats—the “Hamilton electors”—have said they’d vote for a Republican alternative to Trump, so far only one Republican elector, Chris Suprun of Texas, has been willing to join the effort. “Federalist 68 argued that an Electoral College should determine if candidates are qualified, not engaged in demagogy, and independent from foreign influence,” Suprun wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday. “Mr. Trump shows us again and again that he does not meet these standards.” To deny Trump the 270 votes needed for an Electoral College victory, 36 more Republicans would have to reach a similar conclusion. Though another Texas elector, Art Sisneros, resigned his position because he felt he couldn’t vote for Trump, there’s been little evidence of widespread Republican alarm over Trump’s authoritarianism.
Yet the rogue electors insist that given the existential threat Trump poses to American democracy, any constitutional mechanism that might stop him is worth a shot. “I don’t know that it can happen,” Suprun, who supported Ted Cruz in the primary, tells me. “I am hopeful that it can happen. But it’s not going to happen if one person doesn’t stand up.”
Speaking with Baca and Suprun, two people who have never met and have profoundly different political orientations, it’s hard not to feel a painfully tantalizing speck of hope. In an election that’s been as dramatically over-the-top as a Michael Bay movie, they are the would-be heroes with highly cinematic backstories trying to save the country at the eleventh hour. Suprun is a former firefighter who was a first responder at the Pentagon on 9/11. Now a paramedic, he sees himself running toward danger once again. “The first person into the breach always takes the brunt of criticism,” he tells me. “I knew that coming in, though I don’t know that I knew the extent of it. But if there’s not a first person there won’t be a second, and if there’s not a second there can’t be a third.”
There may be at least a couple more. Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, has teamed up with the California law firm Durie Tangri in an effort called the Electors Trust, which will provide free legal advice to wavering electors. Lessig, like Suprun, has no idea if an Electoral College revolt could actually happen, but thinks that given the danger Trump poses to democratic norms and his decisive popular vote defeat, it’s worth a try. “Part of what we did was to build this because nobody knows,” Lessig tells me. “What we did know is that there were electors who were troubled by this decision and would want at least a chance to know whether it was worth it to pitch a fight.” The Electors Trust has already heard from some electors, though because of its promise of confidentiality, the group is not saying anything about them, including whether they are Democrats or Republicans.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring electors to vote for the candidate who won their popular vote, but Lessig argues that the Constitution overrides them. “The constitutional law is clear. Electors are federal officers, so the states can’t restrict their freedom to cast their vote as they want to,” he says. “What the states can do is to make them pledge one way or the other, so it’s a moral rather than a legal obligation.” Baca is a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Colorado law that binds electors. “Though Hillary Clinton and Timothy Kaine won the majority vote in Colorado and are qualified for office, plaintiffs cannot be constitutionally compelled to vote for them,” the suit says.
This is a painfully ironic position for Baca, a passionate Clinton supporter. “Of course my first preference would be to try to get 37 Republican electors to vote for Hillary, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she says. “Given that reality I’ll do what’s necessary.” In this case, she thinks that means voting for a non-Trump Republican. Some of the names the electors have been bandying about are Ohio Gov. John Kasich (who has said he’s not interested), Arizona Sen. John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Colin Powell. “What would be more impressive than Republicans and Democrats coming together to vote for X, whoever Mr. or Mrs. X might be?” asks Suprun.
Suprun, who has spent the days since his New York Times op-ed giving press interviews while navigating online threats against himself and his family, is hoping to talk about potential candidates with other Republican electors. “The first thing I’m going to do is try and clear out my voicemail box,” he says. “If another elector does call me, I can say this is an opportunity. You know, you’re not a rubber stamp, and if you’re willing to consider someone else, let’s have that discussion. Who can unite the country?”
The truth is, probably no one. This isn’t a Hollywood movie, and however scrappy the patriots hoping to ward off the Trump kakistocracy, we’re not guaranteed a happy ending. Still, Suprun insists, astonishing things do sometimes happen. “I never thought,” he says, “Donald Trump would win an election.”