Authoritarian Electoral College Underpopulation: Historical Reflections and a Possible Countermove under Article I, Section 5


The possibility of a contested presidential election in November 2020 to January 2021 is real, and one of the most common scenarios (discussed in a widely shared Newsweek article and by the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig) involves states refusing to certify or report slates of electors to the Electoral College with the result (and, in all likelihood, the intent) of throwing the election to the House of Representatives. I call this scenario authoritarian Electoral College underpopulation.

In this memorandum, I advance two points. First, neither Article II nor the Twelfth Amendment was designed for such scenarios, being rather intended for situations where multi-candidate or multiparty dynamics lead to no single candidate gaining a majority in the College (as occurred in 1800 and in 1824). Absent a multi-candidate scenario where no third candidate materializes, or absent an Electoral College tie, no contingent vote of the House should occur, because states should faithfully report their Electoral College slates in keeping with republican principles, that is, state popular majorities.

Second, I then argue that the House of Representatives could respond by reconfiguring its members using its powers under Article I, Section 5, with a combination of selective delegation seating or selective delegation reconstitution, to produce in the House contingent vote the result that would have been produced by a legitimate (republican) Electoral College vote and/or the national popular vote.

While Article I, Section 5 powers are subject to abuse, they could be used under extreme circumstances to rectify unrepublican actions among state authorities. Indeed, some such Section 5 powers have been used before in a similar corrective manner, to counter unrepublican actions at the state level. While reform of our Electoral College institutions is a more desirable “first-best” aspiration, this argument points to ways of protecting the republican principle in near-term presidential elections.