When Nevada’s presidential electors would vote, I would always try to attend. It was such an antiquated remnant of the past. As often as not, I was the only one attending. In 1984, there was one television crew and me – no one else.
Then politics started getting meaner and more polarized. The United States had gone through the entire 1900s without an unelected president appointed by electors (there were three of them in the 1800s).
Al Gore won the 2000 election but presidential electors appointed George W. Bush instead.
For some reason that was never explained to me, the Nevada electors voted later than other states, and when the state’s electors finally voted late in the day, the race was so narrow that Bush had still not won.
Nevada’s electors put him over the top. It took place in the old Nevada Supreme Court chamber on the second floor of the old capitol. Elector Bill Raggio gave me the pen with which he voted for Bush.
This year, unless something intervenes, the electors will again overrule the public vote and appoint the loser to be president.
No other democracy on earth has a system like this. Perhaps some authoritarian nation has one. I don’t know.
On Dec. 10, there were news reports that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Russia intervened in the U.S. election to help Donald Trump. That is not the same thing as saying that Russia intervened in the U.S. election to help Donald Trump. U.S. intelligence does not have the kind of record that fills us with confidence. Remember their 1992 claim that Iraq had one of the world’s most powerful armies, the one that crumbled within days of the U.S. invasion? Remember their claims of weapons of mass destruction?
Still, it’s got to make some Republican electors nervous. Do they want to vote with Russia to appoint Trump over the actual election winner? Trump didn’t make their job any easier when he responded to the CIA by attacking U.S. intelligence instead of Russian intelligence, which shocked the U.S. foreign policy apparatus.
Nevada electors don’t have such an uncomfortable choice. On Dec. 19 they will vote for the winner both of Nevada and the United States.
When I first started covering these ceremonies, the Nevada secretary of state (who stages the ceremony) stayed in the background, letting the electors do their thing. I remember Secretary of State William Swackhamer stood with his back to the wall while the electors voted, unless he needed to pass out forms. In more recent years, the secretaries of state have taken a more publicized role, standing at a podium or sitting at the head of the table.
The political parties pick their electors at their state conventions earlier in the year. The rank and file tend to believe these spots should be reserved for them, but people with titles often seem to get them, anyway.
If the electors wanted to protect the populace from Russia or Trump, they would have difficulty doing it. State Legislatures have passed laws that overrule the way the founders created the presidential electors. The founders did not want them associated with “factions” (political parties) and now the parties choose the electors. The founders wanted them to be free to vote for anyone they chose, and now state governments have state laws requiring them to vote for whoever carries their states. Nevada even has a law under which the secretary of state can remove an elector who doesn’t vote with his party.
Nevada used to have a law instructing electors to “proceed conformably to the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the United States.” It has been repealed.
It’s unlikely the courts would uphold state laws that override constitutional law. But no such case has come to the courts yet. And presidential electors who don’t vote with their party tend to be ostracized within the party thereafter, so they tend to stay in line.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.