WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s supporters were not the only ones cheering when FBI Director James Comey last week revealed the agency was reviewing new emails related to Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders’ write-in hopefuls celebrated as well. They want him to win enough states to deny Clinton the 270 electoral votes for the presidency, and then take the White House by congressional action. It’s a long shot.
“It was very obvious to us, people were just flooding into last night’s conference call,” Joel Colombero, 41, a co-founder of BernieVote.com based in San Jose, Calif., said Tuesday. “So we’re trying to capitalize on some of what’s happening in the media.”
Since September, a group of informal campaigns including “Op Deny 270” and BernieVote.com have been digging through election law, organizing volunteers, registering as electors and working on a strategy that they say could put Sanders in the White House.
Most of the organizers are based in California, where 55 people registered as “electors” to get Sanders approved as an official write-in candidate, with Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard as his vice president.
State laws on write-ins vary, but besides California, write-ins for Sanders will be counted in his home state of Vermont as well as in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Iowa, Washington and Oregon. In the 2012 election, just 136,040 write-in votes were cast and tabulated, according to the Federal Election Commission.
“We’re telling people that when you’re voting, there should be a better reason than just choosing the lesser evil,” said Jason Small, 46, who has been heading the effort in Los Angeles. “And this (latest FBI news) has absolutely re-energized our write-in campaign too.”
The news that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile resigned from CNN after a WikiLeaks email revealed that she had leaked primary debate questions to Clinton’s camp has strengthened the group’s conviction that they were cheated.
They believe that Sanders supports their efforts despite his Clinton endorsement.
“By bowing out gracefully and going about his business, maybe he knew this, that evidence surrounding Hillary would come out,” Colombero said.
The Goal: Ensure Sanders is in third place
Organizers say Sanders could get enough write-in votes, in states where they are allowed, to deny Clinton the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. Under the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives would then decide among the three candidates who had received the most votes.
“We want to make sure Bernie is in third place so he is an option for the House of Representatives,” said Terje Oseberg, 47, a co-founder of BernieVote.com who lives in San Jose.
They are also counting on gridlock and the public’s dislike of both major-party candidates.
“This whole thing would throw a wrench in the system,” Oseberg said. “They might have no choice but to go with Bernie. They may not want to, but what are they going to do?”
In the meantime, Sanders himself has been campaigning for Clinton and telling supporters there is too much at stake to waste a vote.
“This is not time for a protest vote,” he said in September. “This is time to elect Hillary Clinton and then work after the election to mobilize millions of people to make sure she can be the most progressive president she can be.”
But write-in supporters say they read between the lines.
“What he’s saying is vote for Hillary, but people don’t understand what he really means is in the swing states,” Oseberg said.
They are telling supporters to vote for Clinton in states like Pennsylvania, where the race is tight.
“He had to publicly say he supported Clinton but he’s been dropping little hints, like in the past he’s said, ‘If I ever tell you who to vote for, don’t listen to me,’” said Krista Pearson, an organizer of the Op Deny 270 campaign in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The write-in campaigns are also reaching out to a group that would seem to have nothing in common with Sanders, the democratic socialist: Trump supporters.
“All the news about the FBI and (Clinton’s) emails has been big … and it has turned out that some in the Trump camp are willing to work with us, because to them it’s critical that she not become our president,” said Small, who is a registered elector for Sanders in California.
Last month he took a road trip to visit Republican and Trump campaign offices in six counties to talk about their common fear: a rigged election.
“Sure, sometimes they’ll call me a socialist piece of trash, but many are willing to listen,” he said. “This talk of a rigged election speaks directly to us after what happened during the primary. There are things we have in common. … Trump supporters hate the government. We’re on the same side on this.”
Small said he told Republicans that they would hurt Clinton more if they wrote in Sanders.
“I’ve been fielding a lot of phone calls from Trump supporters since then,” he said. “I’m not a Donald Trump fan, but I can see eye to eye with some of his supporters.”
The persistent Sanders campaigns have many Democrats rolling their eyes.
All this effort is “irrelevant to the voters of this country, who have a choice between Secretary Clinton and the KKK candidate of Donald Trump,” said Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic strategist in Sacramento.
Mulholland said Democrats in cities like Chico, Calif., which heavily came out for Sanders, were now working just as hard for Clinton.
“Clearly Secretary Clinton will win California with 24 points plus,” he said. “Do any of these activists actually think that Sanders will be elected president? I would predict that most of these people will wake up on Nov. 9 and see that she’s barely won, and feel good that they expressed their support for Sanders. But it won’t matter.”