Electoral College Voter: Long an Honor, and Now Also a Headache

In Michigan, Democratic electors have been promised police escorts from their cars into the State Capitol, where on Monday they will formally vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr.

In Arizona, state officials are holding the vote at an undisclosed location for safety reasons, far from what is expected to be a heated hearing on election integrity issues that Republicans will conduct in the Statehouse.

Even in Delaware, the tiny, deeply Democratic home state of the president-elect, officials relocated their ceremony to a college gymnasium, a site considered to have better security and public health controls.

For decades, Electoral College voters have served as the rubber-stamping bureaucrats of American democracy, operating well below the political radar as they provided pro forma certification of a new president. Despite its procedural nature, the role has long been considered an honor, bestowed as a way to recognize political stature or civic service.

This year, the Electoral College is another piece of routine election mechanics thrown into the cross hairs of President Trump’s sustained assault on voting integrity. After five weeks of lawsuits, recounts and Republican inquiries into unfounded claims of fraud, Americans will turn to the 538 members of the Electoral College to provide a measure of finality to Mr. Biden’s decisive victory.

And as small-town electors face harassment and more prominent figures adapt to increased security measures, a duty long considered a privilege has also become a headache. Even as the electors prepared to vote on Monday, Mr. Trump on Sunday railed on Twitter against the “MOST CORRUPT ELECTION IN U.S. HISTORY” and suggested that swing states could not certify “without committing a severely punishable crime” — further raising concerns about electors’ personal security.

“Trump supporters did not get the same kind of vitriol in 2016,” said Khary Penebaker, a Democratic elector from Wisconsin who will be casting his vote for Mr. Biden at the State Capitol in Madison. “This is some scary stuff, man, and this is not what America is supposed to be like.”

Aside from safety and pandemic concerns, which led to the closings of the Michigan and Wisconsin state Capitols to the public, the process has become an unlikely news media event. From protests outside the voting sites to livestreamed broadcasts of the activities inside the rooms, electors, state officials and party leaders are bracing for an extraordinary onslaught of attention.

The new attention on electors comes as the Electoral College system has tenuous support from the American public, particularly Democrats who say it doesn’t represent the will of the people, after the last two Republican presidents George W. Bush and President Trump, took the White House while losing the popular vote.

Monday’s certifications will be conducted against a backdrop of tense partisan acrimony. The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a desperate 11th-hour effort by Trump allies to change the outcome of the election, the latest in a string of stinging legal defeats. A broader effort to persuade Republican-controlled state legislatures to swap out Democratic electors for a slate loyal to Mr. Trump has also failed.

Despite the legal losses, much of the party has rallied behind the president’s push to overturn the will of millions of voters, giving rise to a wave of outrage and threats from supporters who now believe the president’s conspiracy theories.

On Saturday, thousands of Mr. Trump’s supporters demonstrated in Washington D.C. and several state capitals, many carrying Trump signs and chanting “four more years.” Clashes with counterprotesters produced several incidents of violence.

The ire among the president’s supporters — and their seemingly unshakable adherence to his false narrative of a stolen election — may prove difficult to extinguish.

“I don’t think we’re at a point where Joe Biden can legitimately be called president-elect,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who will be casting an electoral vote for Mr. Trump in Columbus. “It’s almost laughable that anybody would think that President Trump should prematurely concede.”

Even some Republicans who are more willing to acknowledge electoral reality seem unable to completely give up hope.

“I imagine Monday may close the door,” said Michael Burke, who just won re-election as the chairman of the Republican Party in Pinal County, Ariz. “Most people are realistic that the path is narrowing for us to change anything. But, you know, miracles do happen.”

For Democrats, the Electoral College vote will be the final affirmation of defeat for a president they believe has undermined the foundation of the country’s political system.

“Our courts and our institutions have held,” said Attorney General Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, who will serve as an elector for the third time on Monday, casting his vote for Mr. Biden. “No politician — no matter his ego and no matter how reckless his lies — will undermine the will of the people.”

Enshrined in the Constitution, electors are called into action weeks after an election is over. A majority are bound by law or pledge to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state. While the Constitution does permit them to change their votes (unless state laws forbid it), becoming what’s known as “faithless electors,” they have never changed the outcome of an election.

Their votes are typically a sleepy affair, a final ceremonial step to move the country toward Inauguration Day.

Not this year.

The 16 who will cast their votes for Mr. Biden in Michigan are expected to have to traverse a gauntlet of protesters, some armed, from a group that believes the election was stolen from Mr. Trump.

“It’s terrible when those things are used to intimidate people,” said Bobbie Walton, 84, a lifelong political activist from Davison, Mich., and first-time elector. “I might have to wear one of my favorite T-shirts: ‘Don’t push, I’m old.’”

In Wisconsin, electors were given new security protocols on Friday, complete with instructions to enter the Capitol grounds through an unmarked side door away from expected protesters.

“You watch the Batman movie and you see how he jumps through the waterfall to get to the Batcave,” said Mr. Penebaker, the Democratic elector from Waukesha County who is also a gun control activist. “It’s like that.”

Mr. Penebaker and Wisconsin’s nine other electors have in recent weeks received an onslaught of pleas on social media and via email from Trump supporters urging them to disown their loyalty to Mr. Biden. Some posted comments to a photo Mr. Penebaker shared on Instagram of his teenage son’s new haircut, urging him to abandon Mr. Biden.

One email from a woman in eastern Wisconsin pleaded with Wisconsin’s Democratic electors in apocalyptic terms. “For the love of God, do not destroy America as we have known her to be,” the woman wrote in the email, which was viewed by The New York Times.

Much of the concern over safety focuses on five states that narrowly went for Mr. Biden — Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania. States Mr. Trump won are not expecting much ruckus at their votes. Frank LaRose, Ohio’s secretary of state, said he did not request additional security measures.

Adding to the overall sense of anxiety is the surging coronavirus pandemic. Public health restrictions prompted several states to limit the audience at their events and enforce strict masking and social distancing guidelines.

As a result, more than half of the states plan to livestream their events, to provide transparency and pre-empt some of the conspiratorial thinking that many state officials anticipate will follow their events.

After the electors cast their ballots, the votes are counted and the electors sign certificates showing the results. These are paired with certificates from the governor’s office showing the state’s vote totals. Typically, the whole process takes less than an hour.

Van R. Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, Ga., said his security detail had been ramped up because of his role as an elector. He described the decision as a “precautionary measure” that did not stem from specific threats but, he said, was a reflection of the climate electors were working in.

“It’s a crazy time,” he added, “and we don’t know what those people will do.”

Still, none of that, he said, overshadowed how “exhilarating and humbling” it is to be one of the 16 Democratic electors, the first in Georgia in nearly three decades, the last time a Democrat won the state.

A Wisconsin elector, State Representative Shelia Stubbs of Madison, said she cried with joy after being named an elector this year.

“To be an African-American and a woman, and to be able to be an elector to witness Senator Kamala Harris become our vice president — it’s an ‘aah!’ moment,” she said. “I’m so excited.” She said she had been urged to “do the right thing” but had not received any threatening messages.

While the process for selecting electors varies, they are typically chosen by state parties. Each state has the same number of electors as it does senators and representatives in Congress, plus three electors from the District of Columbia, which does not have congressional representation.

There are no real qualifications for becoming an elector beyond a deep connection to a political party, either as an activist, donor, politician or super-volunteer. Those asked to serve range from Former President Bill Clinton to Mary Arnold, a retired social worker who is chairwoman of the local Democratic Party in Columbia County, Wis. — a swing area just north of Madison that went for Mr. Trump by just a 517-vote margin.

Ms. Arnold says most of her neighbors in Columbus, the small town of about 5,000 people where she grew up and has now retired, have been supportive and excited for her.

“If people want to give me pushback, let them,” she said. “I’m certainly not going to let anybody try to push me around — I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

In Delaware, John D. Daniello credits himself with helping to start Mr. Biden’s political career, saying he drafted the president-elect to run to replace him on the New Castle County Council in 1970.

The 88-year-old former state party chairman is disappointed that his daughter, the current party chairwoman, cannot accompany him into the college gymnasium where he’ll cast his vote. And he’s unsure if he’ll make it to Mr. Biden’s inauguration, given his age and the pandemic.

But Mr. Daniello has no intention of missing his chance to cast his state’s electoral vote for his old friend.

“We’re known as the first state to sign the constitution so I kind of look at my vote as the first vote for him,” he said. “Hell or high water, I’ll show up there.”

Kathleen Gray, Kay Nolan and Hank Stephenson contributed reporting.


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