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STORY BY NICHOLAS CASEY

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Published on December 14, 2020 1:43 AM

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Meet the Electoral College's Biggest Haters: Some of the Electors Themselves
Few critics of the Electoral College are quite like Polly Baca.

Baca believes that the Electoral College, which has chosen U.S. presidents since George Washington, "has absolutely no reason to be." This year, she brought, and lost, a Supreme Court case challenging her state's rules over how electors vote. Before electors cast their ballots for president in 2016, she invited several members to her home to plot a way — also unsuccessful — to circumvent the outcome.

But unlike Donald Trump, whose raft of legal filings and maneuvers has failed to change the result of this year's election, Baca is a Democrat. And she even serves as one of the body's 538 electors while all but calling for the group to be abolished.

"There's absolutely no reason why the world's strongest democracy doesn't elect its CEO with the popular vote," said Baca, who will cast one of Colorado's nine electoral votes for Joe Biden, the president-elect. "I've been on the outside, but I prefer to go on the inside to see what I can do."

It is the Electoral College, not the direct vote of the American people, that will decide the next president Monday, when its 538 electors, chosen mostly during state party gatherings earlier this year, sign their ballots and send them to Washington.

For generations, the body was viewed as a rubber stump to the will of the voters — but as with many things, scrutiny came only when things seemed to go wrong. The 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush showed that a mere 537 popular ballots could tip Florida's Electoral College votes and, with it, the presidency. The 2016 election proved that a president could lose by millions of popular votes, yet be handed the White House anyway.

"The head of the student council in your middle school was elected by a popular vote," said Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and the author of a book called "Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?" "I know it's an old-fashioned notion, but the most fundamental democratic value is that all votes should count equally."

Yet it's hard to think of a time before this year that dragged the Electoral College, and American democracy with it, into such dangerous territory.

The election, where it was clear by evening on Election Day that Biden had won the popular vote, turned into a nail-biter that stretched on for days — largely because of the high volume of mail ballots in a few states rich in Electoral College votes. President Donald Trump used the delay to make false claims from the White House that fraud was underway and that he had actually won.

Trump then turned to the courts to swing the Electoral College his way, backing lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin. The president's lawyers appeared to hope that a friendly judge would overturn the results in one or more states that would allow him the 270 electors he needed to remain in office.

As judges dismissed his suits, the president urged Republican state lawmakers to send delegations to the Electoral College who would vote for him anyway. He then brought White House influence to bear on a county election body in Michigan — one more last-ditch effort to stall the state from sending electors for Biden.

That has left electors like Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, a conservative Oklahoma activist who will cast her vote for Trump on Monday, believing the president will stay in office.

"I'm going to be quite honest with you, I think Donald Trump will be president for a second term," she said, citing continued attempts to overturn the results.

Yet for other electors, the frantic moves by a sitting president — indeed, most of the election itself — has led to soul-searching, not just on who should be president but also on how the president should be chosen.

"These tactics are tantamount to those in authoritarian governments," said Alan Kennedy, a presidential elector in Denver.

He said the election reminded him of a stint when he lived in Uganda and its president jailed his main opponent ahead of an election, something that Trump also has repeatedly called for during his campaigns.

Kennedy plans to dutifully cast his vote Monday for Biden. But for Kennedy, a captain in the Colorado Army National Guard who served in the Middle East, a question still looms large behind the task ahead of him: Is such a system really in keeping with the nation's ideals?

"What's terrifying is how close we came to another election of a president who won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote," he said.

Robert Nemanich, a former elector from Colorado Springs, puts it another way.

"Do we really want 538 Bob Nemanichs electing our president?" he asked.

Nemanich is quick to point out his only professional qualification for the job was being a high school math teacher. After volunteering as a Bernie Sanders primary delegate in 2016, Nemanich landed the job after giving out credentials at a state Democratic convention where selecting the electors was one of the agenda items.

"I was one of the few asking to be an elector, and I would say 90% of people didn't know what that was," he said.

And while this year's electors include respected party officials and well-known activists — Hillary Clinton said she would be an elector for New York state — there have also been some unexpected names recruited for the task.