Maybe there’s still time to dump Trump

Stephen Neely

Thomas Jefferson once said that politics is “such a torment...I advise everyone I love not to mix with it.” Anyone who’s closely followed the 2016 election knows just how painfully true his insight was.

New research by the American Psychological Association revealed record levels of election related anxiety among the American people, and with good cause. A recent rash of WikiLeaks document dumps and some unfortunate “locker-room” banter have left more than a few Americans wondering if this is really the best that we can do.

By now, many have come to recognize, albeit too late, that we deserve better than this election.

But what if it’s not too late? Another interesting fact about Thomas Jefferson: he was appointed president by the House of Representatives. America’s celebrated third president didn’t carry the Electoral College. In an early manifestation of our modern electoral system, Jefferson tied his running mate Aaron Burr with 73 electoral votes, triggering an obscure constitutional scenario in which Congress was called upon to select the president.

If neither major party candidate is able to amass 270 votes in the Electoral College, responsibility for choosing the next president falls to Congress. Yet while this provision gives Congress power to select the commander-in-chief in cases of electoral deadlock, it is a limited power. The House must choose a candidate from among the three highest finishers in the Electoral College.

The Congressional scenario is a rarity in presidential elections. Congress hasn’t appointed a president under these rules since the 1800s, but whispers of a contested election emerged over recent weeks when polling data showed Independent candidate Evan McMullin eclipsing 20 percent of the vote in Utah, threatening an unlikely upset in a traditionally Republican stronghold.

Yet with Hillary Clinton leading in key battleground states, an upset by McMullin in Utah would likely not be enough to trigger an electoral intervention by Congress. And even if it did, McMullin is a relative unknown, making him a risky bet for Congress, particularly in such a volatile political moment.

But what if there’s another way? The truth is that we don’t have to vote Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump into office; we can actually write them both out.

Over 40 states currently provide the opportunity for voters to write-in candidates on the presidential ballot, and there are no rules prohibiting write-in candidates from winning Electoral College votes, or even the presidency. While many states do have strict rules requiring write-in candidates to officially file their candidacies in advance, several key states such as Pennsylvania do not, and in other states such as Michigan, the filing deadline has not yet passed.

A few effectively coordinated write-in campaigns in these states could potentially deadlock the Electoral College and provide Congress with a more palatable option than those currently set before the American people.

There’s no question that successful write-in campaigns are rare, but they’re not unheard of. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt won the Democratic Party primary in New Jersey with over 30,000 write-in votes, and four years later Thomas Dewey won Pennsylvania’s Republican primary with more than 100,000. In 1964, a small group of advocates working on behalf of then-Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. organized a successful write-in campaign in New Hampshire, where the ambassador defeated frontrunners Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller. Lodge went on to win additional primaries as a write-in candidate in New Jersey and Massachusetts before ultimately losing the nomination to Goldwater.

While a prolific age of digital media bodes well for the potential efficacy of grassroots campaigns, not just any potential candidate can pull this off. On top of having high name recognition, any potential write-in candidate would need to have a dignified and respectable public persona — one that would set them apart from the tawdry and corrupt politics of the 2016 campaign. They must be someone whom a Republican Congress would be inclined to choose over Donald Trump, most likely either a center-right independent or a moderate Republican. Dr. Condoleezza Rice and former Gov. Mitt Romney represent potentially viable options.

2016 has been a year of unpredictability and political firsts, and with nearly two weeks to go before election night, perhaps anything is possible, even a political revolution befitting the American legacy.

Stephen Neely is Assistant Professor at University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs.