Throughout the winter and spring, supporters of defeated libertarian extremist Rep. Ron Paul were fond of claiming that they had the power to either disrupt the Republican National Convention or generate enough defections in November to sabotage the mainstream GOP’s efforts to win back the presidency. Though the Paulbots managed to amuse some bored members of the press corps at the Tampa convention, their attempts to gain attention barely deserved to be called a distraction. Their threats about affecting the vote in the general election appear to be even emptier as polling showed that much of Paul’s limited support came from Democrats crossing over to participate in GOP primaries and caucuses. However, it appears that the libertarian fringe could actually materially affect the outcome in a way that no one seems to have foreseen.

As the Associated Press reports today, three of the Republicans who will become members of the Electoral College should Mitt Romney win their states are now saying they will refuse to vote for the Republican. All three are Paul backers who somehow managed to be appointed to this usually symbolic post but who have the power to thwart the will of the voters if that is their pleasure. Two are from potential tossup states, Iowa and Nevada. Another is from Texas, a state certain to go Republican this fall. All profess to be not merely disgusted with Romney’s relatively moderate stands on the issues but angry with some of the petty slights dealt out to Paul delegates in Tampa. Together, they could deprive Romney of a majority should the election turn out to be a nail-biter. If this happens, those in the GOP leadership who insisted on net letting Paul’s name be placed in nomination or in counting the votes cast for him will rue their decisions.

Faithless electors are not unknown in American history, and approximately half of the states have laws prohibiting electors from voting for anyone but the choice of the voters. But as the AP points out, Nevada’s law carries no punishment, meaning that one of the GOP electors who has said he’ll vote for Ron Paul rather than Romney could probably do so with impunity.

Other Paul supporters who have managed to become potential members of the Electoral College promise they’ll defect only if it won’t influence the outcome of the election. Thus if Romney exceeds or falls short of the 270-vote majority he needs, there may be more than three votes for Paul or abstentions.

This possibility will raise the usual objections to the Electoral College as an institution. The faithless electors are right that the founders of the republic did intend them to act as a deliberative body of elites. Yet the College persists because changing it would alter the balance of power between the states and because it is difficult to shuck tradition. It was bad enough when it produced, as it did in 2000, an outcome that did not match the popular vote. But should faithless electors thwart the will of individual states, it will be difficult to refute the inevitable calls for change that will ensue.

But if Paul supporters didn’t like the top-down rules that were imposed on the RNC to silence them, this will only serve to motivate both parties to create regulations that will be even more draconian attempts to weed out dissidents from positions of influence. Any state Republican party, such as the one in Nevada, that allowed its electors to be chosen by the Paul faction will be likely to do everything to ensure that this never happens again.

The odds are, either Romney or President Obama will wind up getting more than 273 votes, making the potential Paul protest merely a matter of symbolism. But if, as is entirely possible, the outcome does come down to a couple of Electoral votes, the focus on these individuals will be intense. If they manage to deadlock the College and send the decision to Congress — something that last happened in 1824 — it will turn the election into more of a circus than the 2000 debacle in Florida.

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