Tuesday of last week was quiet.
Wednesday was quiet, too.
The pitchforks started arriving last Thursday, about 36 hours after the presidential election was called. They were virtual pitchforks, but still. Email after email. Tweets. Phone calls. Facebook posts. Some profane. Some pleading.
One subject line: “electoral votes are wrong”
Another: “Vote in Hillary Clinton Dec. 19”
Another: “Letter to America”
So it goes at the Office of the Federal Register, which administers the electoral college and now finds itself at the center of a populist brouhaha.
The electoral college is not an actual place — no grassy quad, nor group of people sharing a space. It exists for one day every four years and then vanishes, like Brigadoon, until the next presidential election. The closest thing to a physical headquarters is this office, one half of the seventh floor of a neoclassical brick building over an Au Bon Pain, six blocks north of the Capitol, in a neighborhood historically referred to as Swampoodle. Over the past week, the Office of the Federal Register has been inundated by Americans wanting to learn about — or somehow control — the college, which is composed of 538 party officials who will actually go about the formal business of electing Donald Trump president Dec. 19, based on the popular votes of each state.
Many people have something to say about that, partly because Hillary Clinton won the most votes nationwide, partly because Donald Trump is Donald Trump.
“It’s just that they keep coming,” says Miriam Vincent, staring at her inbox Wednesday morning. “And every time we get close to having a handle on it, we get more. It goes on. And on.”
Her email pings.
Vincent has 558 unread emails, a grande chai in her hand, and a big bottle of Excedrin Migraine on her cluttered desk. She is a staff attorney in the Legal Affairs and Policy Division in the Office of the Federal Register under the National Archives and Records Administration.
What that really means, right now, is that she is dealing with the nation’s collective freakout about the electoral college. Millions of Trump haters who can’t handle Clinton’s loss are signing petitions to persuade electors to vote as the plurality of Americans did, which would be completely permissible and also pretty unprecedented. Actual electors are being lobbied and harassed, according to the Idaho Statesman, and this frantic energy has also funneled toward the Office of the Federal Register, whose website is the second Google hit when you search “electoral college.”
Death threats. Promises of civil war. Inappropriate photographs. Students with homework questions. A daughter of Holocaust survivors who called to sob into the ear of a government bureaucrat. A woman in Florida who wanted Vincent to do something about Russian hacking.
Only four employees work in Vincent’s division. In the past week, each has taken on the role of civics teacher, and the role of therapist.
“You really need a thick skin,” says Amy Bunk, the division director. “People are venting their frustration. This woman, who didn’t understand the system at all, ended up accusing me of interrupting her and thinking she was stupid.” She sighs. “I spent an hour on the phone with her.”
The Office of the Federal Register has pale blue walls and a ceiling of fluorescence. It looks like any warren of nonpartisan bureaucracy: Cubicles. Giant binder clips. Stacks of blank paper. Boxes labeled “FAA Airworthiness Directives.” Boxes of material labeled “BURN.” An old-fashioned card catalogue for the president’s executive orders.
An email from Troy, Mich., sent 93 minutes before Trump was declared the winner last week: “OK I little confused. . . . . . . . . tell why do we have a general election if our vote does not count for the Presidential election?”
The normal work in this office is the publishing of the daily Federal Register, which includes government agencies’ notices and proposed rules, plus presidential documents such as speeches and proclamations. It’s America’s paper trail, wide open for anyone to see, textual government transparency in action. They’ve processed over 28,000 documents so far this year. They publish every business day, even if D.C. is closed for snow, even if the government is shut down.
“And every four years we have this dropped on us,” Vincent says. It goes back to a 1950 government reorganization that moved administrative responsibility for the electoral college from the State Department to the National Archives. “And we have it because the archivist said, ‘You’re doing it.’ Maybe the [Register] director was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
After a presidential election, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the electors gather at their respective state capitals to cast their votes. Who are they? Just regular people, entrenched in party politics, who have been selected by their parties for this very specific task. Among other standing requirements, they cannot have fought for the South in the Civil War.
They sign their state’s electoral certificates, which are then sent to Congress and to Vincent’s division. There are usually a handful of states that screw something up. Either the governor didn’t sign the certificate, or they didn’t put the state seal on it, or they got the election date wrong — in which case Vincent’s division says “try again.” Then she and her colleagues compare its 51 certificates to the ones received by Congress, to make sure everything checks out.
And then we have a president.
The past three elections were easy for Vincent’s office. The election of 2000 was a challenge. Citizens kept showing up to scrutinize the signatures on Florida’s certificate, which had been laid out for public inspection.
This year, though, is unreal.
A tweet to @ElectoralCollege from a woman named Jeanne: “Please do not discard my Ohio vote. Trump IS my president.”
A tweet from an anonymous 18-year-old: “F--- YOU. Hillary got the most popular votes and then you chose a guy who can’t even do his fake tan right.”
But Vincent and Bunk are not in charge of choosing the president. Their role here in this moment is simply to respond to these emails with information, excise offensive posts from the Facebook page, and screenshot the threats to send to the inspector general.
“We’re really sick of the phrase ‘We the People,’ ” Vincent says.
“On both sides,” Bunk adds.
“Someone sent us the text of the Declaration of Independence,” Vincent says.
“What happened to civics in school?” Bunk says. “I’m serious about that.”
“A lot of people have been asking or advocating or yelling that we need to go back to the popular vote, but there is no ‘back,’ ” Vincent says. “Because this is how it’s been since 1789.”
For now, then, there are emails to deal with, callers to educate, and a process to follow that helps to formally elect a president. And a couple weeks after the inauguration, Vincent will enjoy her first vacation since August, on the beaches of Miami, far from the paper and the pinging.