America Asks About Politics

Faithless Electors

One of the (few) positive effects of the as-yet undecided outcome of our Presidential election is the opportunity to focus on the strange details of our electoral system. Unlike in many democracies where the “one person one vote” system rules, we have an indirect system of elections. Instead of voting directly for candidates, we vote for electors from our states whose votes actually determine who will be the next President.

Generally this wrinkle in the system goes unnoticed because the candidate who wins the popular vote almost always wins the electoral vote. Almost always. But, in this election, the electoral vote may be at odds with the popular vote. Does this mean that the candidate with at least 270 electoral votes will definitely win the Presidency?

No. Since it is the electors who actually determine who will be President, we are relying on the likelihood that say, electors chosen by Republicans will automatically vote for the Republican candidate. In general this does happen, but there have been cases of so-called “faithless electors”: these are electors who voted contrary to the wishes of the party that appointed them. Is this legal? Is this likely? Can we do anything about this problem?

First, let’s see what faithless electors there have been so far. There have been 8 cases of fathless electors in our history.

The first clear case of the faithless elector happened in 1820, where one of James Monroe’s electors voted for John Quincy Adams instead. Monroe carried every state in the Union, so the outcome was not affected.

In this century, there have been 7 faithless electors. The first was in 1948, when Strom Thurmond was running for president on the Dixiecrat platform. Preston Parks, a Truman elector for Tennessee, voted for Thurmond, who was a distant third in the popular vote. W.F. Turner, an elector for Adlai Stevenson, voted in 1956 for a local judge from his home district.

The first appearance of a faithless elector in a close election happened in the 1960 race between Nixon and Kennedy. An Oklahoma Kennedy elector named Henry D. Irwin voted instead for Harry F. Byrd, a senator from Virginia. Byrd ran as an independent and gained in addition all the 8 electoral votes from Mississippi and 6 of the 7 votes from Alabama. Reportedly Irwin, a southern Democrat, objected to Kennedy’s civil rights policies. Although this election was very close, Irwin’s vote did not affect the outcome.

In 1968 however, the independent candidate’s appeal and his corresponding electoral votes almost did change the outcome. Lloyd Bailey, a North Carolina Nixon elector, voted instead for George Wallace, who ran as an independent. In this case, Wallace gained a total of 46 electoral votes, which came close to preventing either Nixon or Humphrey from getting the number needed to win.

In 1972, a Nixon elector named Roger L. McBride voted for the Libertarian candidate John Hospers. The publicity McBride received culminated in his own run for President in 1976, also as a Libertarian.

A Ford elector from Washington, Mike Padden, voted in 1976 for Ronald Reagan. Reagan has lost the party’s nomination to Ford. The most recent case was in 1988, where Margarette Leach, a Democratic elector from West Virginia, voted for Democratis Vice-Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen instead. She said, “it was nice to make a mark on history... I wish every year somebody... would make a statement and it would be heard.”

What happens when an elector is faithless? It turns out that only about half of the states have laws binding their electors to vote for the popular vote winner in their state. But wait, the situation is even worse. In the states that do bind their electors, either there is no penalty, or the penalties range from a fine ($1000 in Wisconsin) to conviction of a fourth-degree felony (New Mexico). And, although there are clear documented cases of faithless electors, no faithless elector has ever been punished. Of course, no faithless elector has ever changed the outcome of an election. So far.

What is the likelihood of faithless electors in this race? State party officials, when asked about the problem, express no concern because the electors are always reputable party activists. Steve Mandernach, Democratic Iowa State Comptroller, said, “Looking down this list of people, something like that would really shock me”. Furthermore, Gore campaign chairman William Daley emphasized that his party would not try to woo electors. “I think there is a presumption that those members who are voting, vote based on the election.”

However, no one would have guessed the directions this as-yet undecided election would take. It would be prudent to wait until the final electoral vote has been certified (January 6, or whenever it actually happens), for this election is far from over. Although both camps categorically state their intent not to conduct a campaign among electors in close states (like Florida), we should recall the wise worse of Yogi Berra to guide us through this crisis: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Return to list of FAQs