After the dramatic results of Super Tuesday, the Republican party establishment is waking up to the fact that its front-runner is a man many of them consider dangerous and few took seriously – and who very likely may win the party’s nomination for president. Many in the party (including its previous presidential nominee, Mitt Romney) are now beginning to voice their opposition, often without any viable alternative. A group of 109 Republican “national security leaders” has published an open letter of protest and vowed to “prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”

Beyond lobbying for the second-place candidate – currently a man who is also despised by the establishment Republicans – what can be done to refute the will of their party’s rank and file?

A so-called “brokered convention” – where party leaders hammer out a deal to select a nominee – hasn’t been required since 1948, when Republicans chose Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, and 1952 among Democrats, choosing Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. The unruly Democratic Convention of 1968 would likely have been brokered as well had Bobby Kennedy not been assassinated, leaving Hubert Humphrey to make the best of a party in disarray. Most observers see it as unlikely this time around, because the front-runner is well on his way to garnering the necessary delegates and no matter what he does, his popularity and polling numbers among the rank and file remain high.

Another option is supporting a third-party “moderate” candidate – Mitt Romney or Michael Bloomberg, perhaps. However, by splitting the right-wing vote, this would most likely guarantee a victory for the Democratics.

The last option is simply to carry on to fight another day, i.e. do nothing and hope the Democratic candidate wins. And then regroup over the next four years. But that party’s current front-runner has problems of her own and could be vulnerable in the general election. And if she lost? Could anything still be done?

What about the Electoral College?

Map of the USA showing the weighting of each state's Electors
Map of the USA showing the weighting of each state’s Electors

Back in the 2000 presidential elections (Bush vs. Gore), the world (indeed many Americans) got a snap lesson in civics and the workings of the U.S. Electoral College, that peculiar institution of American democracy. They (re)learned that the presidential election is not decided by direct popular vote. Instead, U.S. citizens vote indirectly, through their state’s “Electors” – assigned according to the size of the population, usually prominent members of each state’s political party who have pledged their support for a candidate.

In all but two states (Maine and Nebraska), the candidate winning the popular vote in that state, (even by only one vote) gets all the Electors allotted to it. On January 6th, following the election (scheduled by tradition on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November) the Electoral votes are counted and the candidate with the absolute majority (currently 270 of 538) wins.

And so it was, in November 2000, when Florida’s Electors would make it the determiner of the national election result. The lengthy controversy over the final popular-vote tally (remember the “hanging chads?”) eventually ended when the Supreme Court decided to halt the recount, essentially handing the election to George W. Bush.

Central to the current drama is that the Electors are not actually required to vote for the candidate to whom they are “pledged”. The U.S. Constitution does not in fact oblige an Elector to vote any particular way. And though this has happened only rarely in the country’s history, it is possible. While more than half of the states have enacted laws requiring Electors to vote as they’ve pledged, a decision to vote otherwise would lead at most to a civil fine, which under extreme circumstances Electors might well be willing to incur, and which, in any event, political scientists agree, are unlikely to be enforced. In addition, there are 24 states that have no such laws, including several large-population states like New York and Texas, and, theoretically at least, their Electors are free to vote against the popular mandate and for a third-party, or even opposing, candidate.

Is the Electoral College just a near-meaningless anachronism? Or could it actually be a last-ditch way to keep an extremely undesirable person from sitting in the Oval Office? The answer must be yes: This, it seems, is exactly what America’s founding fathers were considering, when they established the system.

In making the case for an Electoral College system, the Federalist James Madison warned that popular democracy might give undo power to “a number of citizens…who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

In their open letter against their front-runner, today’s Republican “national security leaders” echo Madison: “Recognizing as we do, the conditions in American politics that have contributed to his popularity, we nonetheless are obligated to state our core objections clearly.” The letter decries the candidate’s statements on America’s role in the world, his war mongering, his anti-Muslim rhetoric and call him “fundamentally dishonest.” They conclude, “he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world.”

At the moment, the world is clearly watching, anxious to see how the primary season will play out and how U.S. voters will finally vote come November. No matter what the outcome, there is the hope that the Electors will do what’s best for their country and the world at large and maybe, just this once, buck tradition.