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Alaska's presidential electors set to vote Trump despite intense lobbying

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 16, 2016
  • Published December 15, 2016

For three Alaskans, this year's endless presidential election still isn't over — and neither is the advocacy on behalf of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Former Gov. Sean Parnell has been screening dozens of out-of-state calls to his cellphone and law office. Jacqueline Tupou, a Juneau commercial property manager, had her mailbox keel over after it was stuffed with letters from Clinton partisans in New York and Los Angeles.

Alaska’s electors are from left, Carolyn Leman, Sean Parnell and Jacqueline Tupou.

And Carolyn Leman, the wife of a former Alaska lieutenant governor, has enlisted her husband to help delete the 2,800 emails hitting her inbox daily. She's gotten letters from Las Vegas, Tennessee, and Minnesota, and an unsigned postcard that read: "Please NOT TRUMP!'

Leman, Parnell and Tupou are this year's Republican presidential electors for Alaska — charged with casting the state's three Electoral College votes for Donald Trump at what's typically a routine ceremony in Juneau.

Except this year, their post — normally a perk handed out to party loyalists — has placed them in the middle of a furious lobbying campaign, and on the receiving end of what Parnell termed a "tidal wave" of correspondence.

All three electors are still expected to vote for Trump at Monday's ceremony, as they pledged to do when they were selected at the state GOP convention in April.

But across the country, several anti-Trump initiatives are pushing electors to ignore their pledges and vote for Clinton, or even for another Republican like Mitt Romney or John Kasich.

One group headed by Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig is offering free legal assistance to any electors who face fines or claims for abandoning Trump, and Lessig claims 20 Republicans are considering it.

Earlier this week in Anchorage, one Clinton voter, Janice Park, even filed a lawsuit against the three GOP electors in federal court. She said in her complaint that Parnell, Leman and Tupou were poised to violate the Bill of Rights and the democratic principle of "one person, one vote" by voting for Trump when Clinton won the popular vote.

Parnell, in a phone interview, said there was no chance he would vote for a candidate other than Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence. And while Carolyn Leman declined to comment, her husband, former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, said he wasn't worried his wife would choose anyone except the president-elect.

Tupou, the Juneau elector, said she's not philosophically opposed to voting for a non-Trump candidate, adding that she was alarmed by the president-elect's attacks on the press and his call for a Muslim registry.

But she called such a decision a "nuclear option" that would "rip at the fabric of America." And she said she'd stick with Trump unless she's presented with a viable alternative candidate who could actually win the presidency.

"Show me a flow chart. Give me some names. Tell me where it ends," Tupou, 40, said in a phone interview. "But I'm not just going to thwart the will of the people on a hope and a prayer that somehow it ends up better."

Alaska’s three Republican electors — including Carolyn Leman, whose correspondence is pictured here — have been deluged with letters, emails and phone calls urging them to cast their votes for a presidential candidate other than the one to whom they’re pledged, Donald Trump. (Carolyn Leman)

The Electoral College, established by the framers of the Constitution, dictates that the president is selected by a slate of electors chosen by the public in each state, rather than in a direct vote.

Critics say the system, which grants electors to each state based on its congressional delegation's size, encourages presidential candidates to ignore all but a handful of swing states. And they point to results like this year's, in which Trump won the Electoral College but not the popular vote.

Supporters say the system ensures a role in presidential elections for smaller states, and cite Alexander Hamilton — who wrote that the Electoral College was a check on direct democracy to ensure the presidency "will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications."

The electors are typically chosen by the political parties in each state, and in Alaska, their formal meetings every four years — set by law for 11 a.m. — are typically brief and uneventful.

In 2012, there was a color guard, a rendition of the national anthem, and a speech by then-Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. The state pays for electors' flights and a hotel room — they're flown in a day early because of Juneau's notoriously bad weather — and the lieutenant governor treats them to lunch.

"It was a nice little ceremony," said Chris Nelson, a 2012 GOP elector from Anchorage who refers to himself as one of the Electoral College's "alumni." He added: "There's not a whole lot of drama in it. But for me it was a tremendous honor."

The Alaska GOP chooses electors it can trust to be "absolutely rock solid" in their allegiance to the Republican presidential nominee, said Tuckerman Babcock, the party chairman whose wife, Kristie, was a 2012 elector. So was Kathleen Miller, whose husband, Joe Miller, is a three-time U.S. Senate candidate.

State law requires the parties to extract a loyalty pledge from each elector, and it also says the electors "shall" vote for their party's candidate. But an election attorney at the Alaska Department of Law, Libby Bakalar, said she was unaware of any penalties in state law for an elector who breaks his or her pledge.

There's also no constitutional requirement that electors vote for the candidates to whom they're pledged. And that flexibility has sparked the lobbying campaign now inundating the inboxes, mailboxes and phones of Alaska electors — two of whom, Parnell and Leman, didn't even ask for the gig.

"I'd say she probably would pass on it if she had known this was coming. But on the other hand, she's up for it," said Loren Leman, referring to his wife. "She's probably gotten 50,000, I kid you not, email messages in the last three weeks."

The certificate that Leman, Tupou and Parnell are expected to sign at Monday's ceremony is already pre-printed with Trump's name. So if the electors ultimately decide to pick another candidate instead, they'd have to get creative.

"I'm not too sure how they would do that," said Sharon Forrest, the state election coordinator.

Tupou, the Juneau elector, said she empathized with the authors of the hundreds of letters she's received, adding that people have "legitimate concerns" about Trump's qualifications and character. She said she had her own "grave moral concerns" about both Trump and Clinton, and hopes that the people who wrote her will turn their energy to monitoring Trump's administration after he's inaugurated.

"It's great that you're mobilized. It's great that you're involved," she said. "And if those are issues that concern you, be a watchdog. Keep participating."

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