The Electoral College officially elected Joe Biden president of the United States during formal gatherings at each of the state capitals on Monday. All things considered, it was a bit of traditional sanity in what has been a zany election cycle.
Vinz Koller, the former chairman of the Monterey County Democratic Party, is Monterey County’s elector, one of only 538 Electoral College votes in the country. In a phone call with Cade Johnson for Voices of Monterey Bay on Friday, Koller described how he came into the role, what it’s like to be an elector and this year’s unprecedented run-up to the Electoral College voting day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Cade Johnson: How did you come to be an elector? Was it a role you worked toward with intentionality, or did it just happen?
Vinz Koller: It was not intentional. It is not something you campaign for. In my case — and I think this
is typical in California — I just got a call from the congressman. The first time I did this was in 2008, when Sam Farr was our congressman, and he called me and said, ‘“Would you like to be an elector?” I said, “Oh, of course,” [Laughs] “I’d be honored.” I didn’t know that was something I could just get a call to be doing. And then I did it again four years ago, in 2016, and I’m doing it again on Monday (Dec. 14) … Typically, the choice is made based on party loyalty. I was the chair of the Democratic Party of Monterey County when I first got appointed. I’m not the chair anymore, but I’m still very active.
CJ: So you’ve been an elector in two elections total?
VK: Yes, I’ve had the full ups and downs; 2008, of course, was the glorious election of Barack Obama. We were all very excited. It was the beginning of a new era. In 2016, I was looking forward to voting for Hillary Clinton to put the first woman in the White House. That didn’t work out even though she got more votes. We know what happened the last four years, now I feel like (with the 2020 election) it’s a bit of a recovery in many ways. So the three elections that I’ve been a part of as an elector are really sort of seminal moments, I think, in the recent history of the country.
CJ: Do you have any shocking or interesting stories from your past experiences as an elector?
VK: I think the most dramatic experience was the 2016 election. It has to do with the fact that … the popular vote and the electoral vote were significantly divergent, with Hillary Clinton getting almost 3 million more votes. But we also had somebody who won the election based on the electoral college outcome with very big question marks around their fitness for office. Some of the electors at that time were actively mulling over what could be done if you took the original intent of the Electoral College seriously. It is not something usually you think about all that much, because the Electoral College is usually considered a purely administrative act, and not an act with actual thinking going on. Four years ago, a lot of thinking went on. It is not something usually you think about all that much, because it seems like it’s essentially an administrative act, and not an act with actual thinking going on. Four years ago, a lot of thinking went on.
The result was that a group of so-called Hamilton electors were looking for a way out. They started out with a few Republican electors, one in particular out of Texas named Chris Suprun, who said if 37 of us don’t vote for President Trump in the Electoral College, then he will not actually be elected by the Electoral College. We could deny him that election. And this is not that well known: there was a group of attorneys called the Hamilton defenders who were working with those Republican electors. During that whole run-up to the Electoral College meeting, there were a few of us Democrats who also joined that effort. We were not going to be able to flip the election because you needed to actually have Republicans to do that. But if enoughDemocratic electors were also willing to vote for a compromise candidate we could have elected someone whom we saw was fit for office. These Hamilton electors were supported by a group of attorneys called the Hamilton defenders.
So that happened all throughout the run-up behind the scenes. This was a somewhat quiet effort … Had he been denied 270 electoral votes, the election would have gone to the House of Representatives. But if the Democrats had also agreed on compromise candidates, who would have been neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton, we might have had a different president for the last four years.
In my case, I went to federal court on the Friday before the Electoral College vote to be free from the constraints that electors have. In California, you have to vote with the majority. If you don’t, you can be fined $1,000, you could be thrown into prison for six months, you could be stripped of your voting rights. I thought that was unconstitutional, not because I didn’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton. I was absolutely a fervent supporter of her campaign, but I thought if we can prevent Donald Trump from winning the election, then this was an appropriate moment to have the Electoral College do its job the way the Founders had intended it to function.
CJ: Do you think being an elector in California offers a different experience than what being one in another state might offer?
VK: Yeah, I think the situation is different. Obviously, when you meet (for the Electoral College vote) in Washington state or Wyoming it’s three or four people getting together in a room. It’s a very different experience when 55 come to the assembly chambers and fill up those chambers. The rules are different in some states. If you vote a certain way, they will replace you after you’ve taken your vote, and will put somebody in place who makes sure that that voter is not a so-called faithless elector. Other than that, the process itself is very similar, you get two ballots, you vote, you sign them. In essence, the process of voting is not that different from state to state.
CJ: Given the social distancing protocols and circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, have the Electoral College vote circumstances changed this year? Will you still drive up to Sacramento on Monday to vote?
VK: It’s the exact same process in that respect. There are two things that are different. The fundamentals are different in the sense that it’s business under COVID-19 rules. It is considered an essential state business so you have to go in person — you can’t do this virtually. They have very strict COVID-19 rules with, you know, temperature checks and masking guidelines. Conferences that used to be in meeting rooms are now virtual. But the actual act in the chamber is similar but with the expected Plexiglas and distance rules and so forth.
CJ: How has the leadup between the general election to this year’s Electoral College vote been different than in the past? As an elector, did you feel like President Trump’s legal challenges against the validity of Joe Biden’s election ever had the impetus to change the outcome of Monday’s Electoral College vote?
VK: I think what’s different here and what I think is unique in American history — and I think the idea that the elections are being called into question and their legitimacy is questioned, is not new — is that there is this barrage of constant challenges that are unfounded and have no basis in fact. It’s just recycled conspiracy theories. I think the idea that you have elected and appointed officials, using conspiracy theory gobbledygook, to challenge a legitimate election that was in many cases run by members of their own party, who were supporters of the president, is beyond bizarre. I think it’s very harmful to democracy. It’s not going to change the outcome of the election but I do think it undermines the perception of its legitimacy. I think it harms all of us. I think it harms the Republican Party probably the most, because it is not good when you have individuals who lose an election stop believing that the system is fair, especially when it actually is fair.
CJ: There has been a lot of discussion, especially in recent years, that the Electoral College is an outdated institution. Do you believe the Electoral College is an outdated institution? If you feel it’s not, what role does it serve today?
VK: I felt that, four years ago, it was being tested for its function as it was originally intended. It never worked that way from the get-go. I think the history of the Electoral College is fascinating. Alexander Hamilton’s argument — which was supposedly a sales job on the Constitution when he made it — was that we needed this (system) fail-safe, if the public got it wrong.
(The Supreme Court) did away with the concept of a fail-safe in July. It confirmed that States can tell electors how to vote. At that point, you have to look at the effect of the Electoral College on election outcomes because we have winner-take-all rules in almost all states, except for two: Nebraska and Maine. This results in an extraordinary distortion of the popular will. Even the most recent election shows distortion, even though this time the popular and the electoral vote align.
But there is an alternative to abolishing the Electoral College. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an attempt to ensure that the Electoral College vote follows the popular vote. It takes effect when enough states have signed on to add up to 270 electoral votes. Right now, we have 196 electoral votes in states that have signed on to the compact, including California. Colorado just had a popular referendum on it and confirmed that they are part of this compact. We’re 74 electoral votes short of that (270) majority.
I think that would be an elegant way to say that, although the electoral college is an artifact of history, we’ve updated it, so that it no longer distorts the popular will. I think the Founding Fathers would be relieved to hear that if they were around. I think it would be better for democracy, it would be better for elections, too, because people would have to actually campaign everywhere. The biggest distortion with the Electoral College is that the presidential campaigns spend all their time and energy exclusively in swing states and the top issues of voters in those states dominate the national discussion during the campaign. Even after the election the incoming President is still overly focused on swing states because of the next election. That’s not the way it should be. Presidents should worry about all Americans. That doesn’t happen currently, and I think that’s a disservice to democracy.
So in that sense, I think it’s time to reform the Electoral College. A constitutional amendment to do away with it is not going to pass. There’s just no way that that could happen in the current configuration. We almost did that in 1968, but we won’t see that happening in my lifetime. But we can reform it. And that’s something that happens at the state level. I’m optimistic that that’s possible, and I think it would be good for democracy. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish in a very … divided electorate, but I still think it’s possible and it’s worth it.
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