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Sometimes it’s good to be a wonk. Just ask Kevin Sabellico, a 22-year-old political consultant from Carlsbad who’s so up on political minutiae that he got dibs on a great gig.
A year ago, he asked his congressman and friend, Rep. Mike Levin, to appoint him a member of the Electoral College. Levin, who didn’t yet realize he had this power, agreed. “I was the first person to ask for it, and I got it,” Sabellico said. Now, he’ll soon cast votes that will help make Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the official president- and vice president-elect.
He’ll have company from San Diego County: A former NFL player, a legislator, an attorney and a philosophy professor/folk singer who’s described himself as “like a less-pissed-off Steve Earle” are also heading to Sacramento soon to cast Electoral College ballots.
Here are questions and answers about the Electoral College and the local crew of electors:
What’s the Electoral College again?
It’s the body that elects the president and the vice president. Every state gets the number of electors that’s equal to the number of its senators and representatives in Congress, and the District of Columbia gets three votes. The total is 538 – 270 are needed to win – and 55 electors will come from California.
Almost all states, including California, give all their electoral votes to the winners (president and vice president) of the popular vote. Sometimes – as in 2000 and 2016 – candidates are elected via the Electoral College even though they didn’t win the national popular vote.
Why do we have this?
“The reason that the Constitution calls for this extra layer, rather than just providing for the direct election of the president, is that most of the nation’s founders were actually rather afraid of democracy,” FactCheck.org writes. Essentially, they didn’t want a wild man like a demagogue to get elected.
So. How’s that worked out?
Who appoints California’s electors?
Each political party appoints a slate of electors. The Democrats allow the winners of each congressional district’s most recent Democratic party primary to pick an elector. The winners of the last two Democratic primaries for U.S. senator also get to pick electors (presumably, this means Harris, a California senator, gets to pick the people who will elect her vice president).
The Republicans have a different system. They appoint several of their most recent nominees for elected offices (like governor, lieutenant governor and state attorney general) plus a number of party honchos. Other parties have slates of electors, too. However, “no incumbent senators, congressional representatives or persons holding an office of trust or profit of the United States can serve as electors,” according to California’s secretary of state. The prohibition on federal office-holders doesn’t extend to those who hold local or state officers. Which brings us to …
Who are San Diego’s Democratic electors?
They’re Sabellico, a political consultant, state Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, attorney Janice Brown, philosophy professor Peter Bolland and financial professional Bryan J. Fletcher, a former NFL player. They were each appointed by the Democratic winner of the primary in a local congressional district.
Bolland, for example, was appointed by Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democratic nominee to replace disgraced Rep. Duncan D. Hunter in the 50th District. (Campa-Najjar lost in November to former Rep. Darrell Issa.) “I’ve known Ammar since he was a student in my philosophy class at Southwestern College,” Bolland said. “Every once in a while there’s a student you connect with, and we just stayed in touch. Then one day my phone rang as I was driving home from the grocery store. He said: ‘Hey, do you want to be in the Electoral College, that thing everybody hates?’ I said: ‘Of course I want to do it!’”
What do they have to do?
Since the Biden/Harris ticket won the popular vote in California, the 55 Democratic electors will head to Sacramento for an in-person meeting on Dec. 14. They’ll then vote separately for president and vice president. The result will then be transmitted to Congress.
There’s no option to vote by Zoom, so attendees will face some risk. “The last thing I want to do is get on a plane and stay overnight in a hotel, but I have to do it. When I come back, I’ll quarantine and stay on one side of the house. I’m just going to be as careful as I can,” said Bolland, who lives in San Carlos with his wife.
Sabellico, the Carlsbad political consultant, might be less worried than most. He’s already had a bout of COVID-19, which also struck his father and grandparents. Everyone recovered. “I’m still going to wear a mask,” he said. “I got an email from the state they’ll have us six feet apart and do temperature checks. I think it will be pretty safe.”
Are the electors pumped?
They are. “This is going to be really exciting,” Sabellico said. “So many people worked so hard for this outcome. Just to rubber-stamp it and make it official will be satisfying.”
The electors will also make a buck. But not much more than a buck. Their reimbursement is $10, plus 5 cents per mile, roundtrip.
Could they go rogue?
“Unfaithful electors” are definitely a thing, although they’ve never changed the results of an election. In the 2016 presidential election, several electors went rogue. In Hawaii, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders got one electoral vote for president (instead of Hillary Clinton) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren got one for vice president (instead of Sen. Tim Kaine).
Democratic electors in Washington state, meanwhile, went completely bananas, giving three votes to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and one to Native American activist Faith Spotted Eagle, plus a bunch of rogue votes for vice president. Guess what: Hawaii and Washington state now mandate whom electors vote for.
California does too. Election law suggests that electors can’t go rogue even if they wanted to, although it’s a bit unclear about what happens if they try other than a penalty.
What about efforts to dump the Electoral College?
They’re afoot, although the odds for an overhaul may be slim because smaller states like to have an outsize influence. (As The Guardian notes, “Wyoming has one electoral college vote for every 193,000 people, compared with California’s rate of one electoral vote per 718,000 people.”) Bolland, the philosophy professor elector, wants a fix, as he wrote in a Union-Tribune commentary. But not before Dec. 14.