Can Faithless Electors Choose A Third-Party Candidate? They Do Have The Power
It's been more than a month since Donald Trump pulled off one of the most consequential upsets in American political history, toppling Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the electoral college to secure his spot as the next commander-in-chief. At least, that's what happened assuming every historical precedent gets followed, but the circumstances of Trump's win ― he lost the popular vote by millions ― and the wildly divisive, often racist and sexist campaign he ran has made a lot of people wonder. Specifically: could faithless electors choose a third-party candidate, thus avoiding four-to-eight years of Trump in the White House?
The answer, in simple factual terms, is yes. The presidential electors could vote for a third-party candidate if they so desired, although some states have law prohibiting electors from exercising their individual wills that way, which would mean they could be subject to fines or further legal consequences. But there's nothing to literally stop them from casting whatever vote they please when Dec. 19 rolls around. That's essentially the tactic that Texas defector elector Christopher Suprun is relying on ― he hopes that the necessary share of 37 Republican electors will eschew Trump in favor of a more tolerable GOP alternative, thus denying him the 270 vote majority he needs.
This idea works with third-party options as well ― an elector in a Trump-won state could cast their vote for, say, Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin, or less believably, Jill Stein. But there are a few major problems with the idea, and they add up to making it both a pointless and a dangerous gesture.
Here's the basic idea: the reason it'd be more feasible to convince a Republican elector to defect to a conservative alternative is that it'd be virtually impossible to convince GOP electors to back Clinton. But 37 electors flipping to Clinton is the only way that anybody other than Trump can cross 270 and claim the presidency outright ― anything else would simply mean that both Trump and Clinton would finish under 270, which would mean the House of Representatives would vote to pick the next president.
And if the House, which is controlled by the GOP, is given the choice between Trump and any other conservative, they're going to pick Trump ― either that, or face the destruction of their party from within. Now that Trump's unique coalition has proven to be a winner, on the electoral map at least, to overthrow him in favor of someone who won precisely zero states would be a complete political catastrophe, and a betrayal of the party's voters.
In essence, you'd have to believe that House Republicans would suddenly stand up to Trump, after largely rolling over for him for months. That isn't going to happen, and there's a fair case to be made that it shouldn't. Clinton won the popular vote, and thus she has a legitimate claim to be people's choice for president. No such claim exists for literally anyone else besides Trump, and overturning the votes of tens of millions of Americans in that way would be as major and destabilizing a violation of political norms as it gets.
Basically, while this is definitely a possibility, you shouldn't hold out much hope. Because unless Republican electors decided en masse to back Clinton, the winner of the popular vote, Donald Trump will be inaugurated in January.