Hillary Clinton's popular vote lead is now over 2.5 million, a 1.9 percent margin greater than that by which nine previous presidents won, and a fat lot of good that does us with the electoral college giving the presidential election to Donald Trump by a combined margin of about 100,000 votes in three key states. This is just the fourth time in U.S. history that a candidate has won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote, the last being Al Gore's sort-of defeat in 2000.

At this point, it's pretty clear that Jill Stein's recount isn't going to save us. But what about those electoral college electors your Facebook-addicted aunt keeps sending you Change.org petitions about? Could enough of them come together to seize control of the Titanic and steer us away from the iceberg that is more jagged than ever thanks to unchecked global warming?

Some constitutional scholars, and of course a heap of disaffected Clinton voters, are urging the electors to do just that. Harvard Law School professor and short-lived presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig argues that the founders intended the electoral college as a "safety valve" to protect us from electing oh, say, an accused serial sexual assaulter and snake oil salesman. Eight of the 538 electors so far have announced plans to break ranks and cast a protest vote, the problem being that they're all Democrats in Democratic-voting states, and the worst they can do is break from their Clinton-voting peers and vote for a Republican other than Trump. They are, however, lobbying their GOP counterparts to do the same in red states.

Critics of this tactic argue that it goes against the role of electors in pretty much all past elections, and that because electors are typically party operatives, they are not at all vetted for the role of impartial protector of the republic. Also, if Trump went below the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the presidency, the decision would go to the House of Representatives, which is now Republican-controlled.

After elections like this—not that there has ever been an election quite like this one—talk inevitably turns to reform, either by way of a pact binding the electors to vote in such a way that insures the outcome reflects the popular vote, or an outright abolition of the electoral college. So it is that Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer has introduced legislation to do the latter, which Al Gore is down with and folks such as Newt Gingrich would have been on board with—had she come up with it two years ago.

Then there's Donald Trump, who now calls the electoral college "actually genius," but felt much differently about it in 2012, when for a brief period it looked like Mitt Romney had won the popular vote but lost to Obama.

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¡Viva la Revolución!

We spoke to Hunter College political science professor Charles Tien, whose pre-election model predicted a Clinton national popular vote victory by a margin of 1.1 percent, about the history of the electoral college and the likelihood of success for the various efforts to change it.

Obviously at times like this, people want to talk about the electoral college and why we have it, and what the role of electors is. On the defection, do you see there being any remote possibility of a mass defection happening that changes the outcome? I don't think so, and that's primarily because of the way the electors are chosen in each state. In the states, most of them are put up by the state party convention or by the state party committees. And then whichever candidate wins the popular vote, you get those electors chosen from that party.

That means the electors are hyper-partisan and we live in a hyper-partisan era. The electors are the most partisan of anybody in the state because they're essentially rewarded for being party loyalists. It would be like, can you imagine de Blasio voting for Trump or the Republican candidate, if the situation were different, because Trump won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote?

Therefore, I think it makes it unlikely that you'll have that happening. And also, the electoral college as originally designed, it was designed in a different era where there were no political parties and there were no national campaigns, and the founders didn’t want there to be bargaining which could lead to possible corruption. So the electors meet in their individual states' capitals and cast their ballots there.

So when the moment actually happens on December 19th, there’s no face-to-face interaction amongst the electors. Meaning there aren't Democratic Party electors meeting with Republican Party electors and trying to sway them on that day. So on December 19th, you have a bunch of hyper-partisan Democrats meeting in Democratic states, and you have a bunch of hyper-partisan Republicans meeting in the state capitols. There's nobody there to talk to them to try to get them to change their mind.

The handful of people who have gone public about their desire to cast a protest vote are Democrats and they're saying they want to cast votes for Republicans other than Trump just to register their objection to his presidency— Right, which doesn't help anybody's cause.

What effect could that have on them personally, or on the process? It depends on the state. There are a number of states [24] that have laws that require the electors to vote with the popular vote of their states. Some of those states require pledges, others may have fines. And the faithless electors in the past, there’s just been a small handful, to my knowledge no elector has been convicted or paid a fine.

So, it’s not going to change the outcome, which is probably one of their reasons for doing it. Two might be to raise awareness of the unfairnesses of the electoral college, where you get these outcomes, and trying to reform the system. And maybe the system should be reformed now, as we’ve had two of these perverse outcomes since 2000. The electoral college was designed for a different era.

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The role of electors was established in Article II of the Constitution, and updated in the 12th Amendment. (Wikimedia Commons)

What exactly did the founders envision the role of the electors being? Is it as a safety valve, as Lawrence Lessig described it, to avert disaster if the popular vote goes to someone who is unfit for office? That’s part of it. There’s the belief that the framers didn’t necessarily trust the people to make the right decisions, and therefore they created all these buffers between the people and the politicians. So the only branch where the people directly elected their representatives was in the House. In the Senate you had indirect elections. The presidency, you had indirect elections. In the courts, you had appointments with confirmation by a body that was not directly elected.

I think it was also the result of a compromise between slaveholding states and non-slaveholding states back then. There was a desire not to have a popular election, because then whatever state had the most people would simply end up holding the presidency.

If you just did a popular vote, the fear was that people in each state would simply nominate and vote for the people from their state, and then with everybody voting for their own candidate, you would just have the large populated states controlling the outcome. It was really a battle between small states and large states, and slaveholding states and non-slaveholding states.

So the compromise was this electoral college where the formula comes from the compromise that was also devised for the creation of the House and Senate. You have the Senate with two senators regardless of population size. I'm sure you've seen articles about how citizens of Wyoming have a [3.49 times] advantage in the electoral college than people voting in New York.

On the slavery issue, was the concern that thanks to the population of slaves, slaveholding states would control national politics? The slaveholding states were concerned that they would be outvoted. The question there was how do you count the population to determine representation? If you didn’t count the slaves, and the Northern states didn’t think the Southern states should be able to count the slaves in their population for determining the number of electors and their representation in the House, the Southern states could see the writing on the wall that they would be overwhelmed eventually and never have adequate influence in the federal government. So they wanted to count all the slaves as part of the population.

And that's how they came up with the three-fifths rule? Yes.

How were electors originally chosen? It actually varied by state. Some were selected by popular vote, and some were selected by state legislators. Slowly, over the first 50 years, you had a movement away from state legislatures choosing them to the point now where they're all elected by popular vote.

When people say that a defection of the kind that sad Hillary Clinton voters are fantasizing about would cause a "constitutional crisis," what do they mean? They mean we have a set of rules that we play by. Everybody assumes this is how the electors in each state will make a decision, so if the electors act independently, that’s what’s meant by a constitutional crisis.

If you look at public opinion polls, trust in the federal government is at all-time lows so it would just further erode the public's confidence in our national institutions.

Let’s say the recounts occur, they started in Wisconsin today, and they start in Michigan on Friday. The possibility of a Pennsylvania recount is less likely from what I read. Let's say they do find irregularities in those two states. And, if [electors] think there’s pretty convincing evidence that there are irregularities in those two states, that would give the electors a more compelling reason to act independently, to vote their conscience, so to say. Especially if there’s some kind of link to the Trump campaign. I’m not saying there is, and I don't think there will be. I’m just spinning scenarios where the Clinton supporters are hoping for a different outcome.

I think that's the only way you get to that outcome. Like the computer scientists at the University of Michigan are positing that there's some type of irregularity where votes were tabulated by computer.

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A vote recount is underway in Wisconsin. (Andy Manis/Getty)

Right, and they were saying an audit is needed, and not just a recount. But that's a whole other issue.

Periodically, some group in politics is upset about the outcome of an election and goes out in support of reforming the way the electoral college works or abolishing the electoral college. Do you think by nature of one side always being the winner, that such reform efforts are doomed, because it's always one party versus the other? I think, given that you’ve had Bush 43 for eight years, then Obama for eight years, and right before that Clinton for eight years and Reagan-Bush for 12—since there seems to be this kind of shifting back and forth in terms of control of the presidency, it makes it less likely that reform takes hold. Because it’s not like the system is producing outcomes consistently benefiting one side or the other.

And if you change the rules, you don’t know what the heck the outcome is going to be. Now, both sides know what they have to do to win. If you completely change the rules, abolish the electoral college, then how do you run campaigns? How do parties win? I think it's a complete mystery.

Isn't the assumption that California, Texas, and New York would determine any election in that scenario, if the electoral college was abolished, and we'll have Democratic presidents forever? Well, the total vote counts were 2.5 million votes separating, so you have the Republican Party getting about the same number of votes as they did last time, about 60 million votes. And I don’t think if you go to a popular vote count that somehow that’s all of a sudden going to change. I think you’re still going to get pretty evenly split elections, because the country is quite polarized right now.

There are fewer politicians in the middle. There are fewer citizens in the middle. There's less compromise. We read different news, we have different facts. The likelihood of voters switching parties isn’t quite what it was 20 years ago. Clinton lost this election not because a bunch of Clinton voters switched over to Trump voters. The numbers Trump got were about what Romney got. The reason she lost was because turnout was reduced by about 5 million in key areas.

I was just reading a [Washington] Post article about Voting Rights Act being gutted by the [Supreme] [C]ourt in 2013. The new voter ID laws in 14 states or so really suppressed minority turnout. You've got suppressed turnout in Milwaukee, did that sway the election in Wisconsin towards Trump? You've got reduced minority turnout in Detroit, and probably by enough votes to cost Clinton the election in those two states.

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This kid gets it. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, and Saginaw County flipped just barely. Anecdotally, in the city of Saginaw there were fewer polling places, and there were big lines, but if you were voting in the suburbs there were no lines. Right, and studies have shown that if you stand in a long line, you're less likely to vote next time.

I think Trump's claims a couple of days before the election that, we're going to be out there watching, I think that was voter intimidation, and it probably got some people to think twice about turning out. So it was really a question I think of suppressed Democratic turnout.

There is some data suggesting that a sizable chunk of white union members in Ohio and Michigan who voted for Obama came out for Trump. That's certainly the case, but I think the bigger story is the suppressed minority vote, and the suppressed Democratic vote.

I don't know if that's the case or not, but I'm just looking at the raw numbers.

Do you have any last thoughts on electoral college reform? You really need to reform it through amending the Constitution and that’s not easy. There wasn’t much outrage after 2000. There seems to be more now, but getting it changed, abolishing it, is not an easy thing to do,

It's certainly going to be an interesting few years. It’s getting the students interested, I think. That's one positive of this election, is that students are interested in what's happening.

Yeah, I was over at Trump Tower recently, and I happened upon several hundred high school students protesting in the cold and the rain. They organized the event themselves. I think that’s all good for our democracy. It’s unfortunate that it’s something like this to get them interested.