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Disgruntled Activists May Target Electors

Last-ditch efforts to win the presidency won’t end Tuesday. 

The 538 members of the Electoral College do not officially cast their votes until Dec. 18, leaving them the target of intense pressure from campaigns to influence the race for the White House after all votes are cast and the winner declared.

Most electors are fierce partisans — “party junkies,” one 2000 Democratic elector explained — and efforts to convince them to abandon their candidate are unlikely to succeed, but that doesn’t stop disgruntled activists from trying. This year, a razor thin victory, or a tie in the Electoral College, could subject electors to some of the most aggressive and widespread lobbying yet.

“There is going to be lobbying no matter what happens,” said Robert Alexander, an Electoral College expert at Ohio Northern University who surveyed electors from 2000, 2004 and 2008. “The question is who is going to be lobbying and why.”

In 2004, about 30 percent of electors said they had been contacted to change their vote. Four years later, as online political organizing became increasingly effective, that number rose to 80 percent, Alexander found. 

The campaigns often center around a particular cause. In 2000, for example, when Republican nominee George W. Bush won the electoral vote, but lost the popular vote, election reform activists urged electors to abstain in protest of the system. 

In 2008, conservatives who argued that then-Sen. Barack Obama was not born in the United States targeted hundreds of Democratic electors.

Sam Spencer, a 2008 Democratic elector in North Carolina, said he received at least 30 letters questioning Obama’s eligibility and urging him to change his vote.

“It was electoral voter suppression; they were trying to suppress the vote,” Spencer said in an interview with Roll Call. “I got an odd package that had a petition and I’m thinking in the back of my mind, ‘this is the one they probably put anthrax in.’ ”

William Forsee, another 2008 Democratic elector for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, received a similar package from the conservative website WorldNetDaily, as well as dozens of emails and letters demanding he drop his support for Obama.

WorldNetDaily did not respond to Roll Call’s request for comment.

Such efforts have soured many past electors on the process.

“I had one elector write back saying she had 35 death threats. I had a number who said they’d never serve in this job again,” Alexander said of the 2000 electors.

This year, election experts said they expected efforts to tap into dissatisfaction among libertarian-leaning conservatives with Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

One GOP Iowa elector already gave up her role in September saying she could not in good conscience support Romney. She and two other electors were exploring alternatives should Romney win their states, according to the Associated Press.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson said he was not aware of preparations for such a campaign.

“While I certainly understand and share the frustrations with the process that can prompt efforts to convince electors to deviate from their pledges, I am not aware of any such effort by our supporters,” he said in a statement to Roll Call. “I am far more focused on the real issue of an election system and process that does, in fact, place unreasonable obstacles in the way of credible candidates who happen to be neither Republican nor Democrat.” 

When Americans cast their ballot, they are actually voting for a block of electors who, in turn, vote for a certain presidential candidate. In every state except Maine and Nebraska, the winner of the popular vote earns all of the state’s Electoral College votes.

Seven states have laws that punish so-called faithless electors and more than 20 other states bind electors by party pledge, though punishments for deviation are minimal.  

Still, laws suggest that the two parties take great pains to prevent faithless voting.

“It’s not like [the electors] are necessarily entrenched party leaders who you can always rely on,” Rob Richie, the executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates a switch to a national popular vote. “That fear is out there, though it hasn’t really ever played out in history.”

Correction: Nov. 5, 5:15 p.m.

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for an Electoral College expert at Ohio Northern University. His name is Robert Alexander.

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