We will know on election night in November, or early the next morning, who will be our next President. But in reality, that is not decided until another election in December. That is when the Electoral College meets, and elects the next President of the United States. In November, we are not electing a President; we are electing the Electors who will elect the next President.
When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, they intended that the Electors should meet and calmly and objectively discuss who should be elected President. They had no intention of Electors deciding their vote in advance, much less running for the position based on how they would vote. They had not only the right, but also the duty to vote as they deemed best for the people. This system has not changed; it is still the system we use today.
The only change in the system is that today, we use a winner-take-all method. Each candidate has candidates for Elector equal to the number of electoral votes to which that state is entitled. Whichever candidate gets the largest number of popular votes wins all of that state’s electoral votes. Such has not always been the case.
In the early days of our Constitution, Electors were chosen by the state legislatures. This led to political deals and a split of the state’s electoral votes in many cases. In some states, a combination of selection by the legislature and popular vote decided the choice of Electors, causing more splits in the state’s electoral votes. The use of voting machines and straight ticket voting at the beginning of this century led to the decline in split electoral votes.
There has been one other cause of split electoral votes throughout our history. That is the “faithless Elector.” In several elections, an Elector pledged to a given candidate has changed his vote, and cast it for a different candidate. It has never made the difference in the outcome of an election, but there have been elections close enough where it could have done so.
The first “faithless Elector” was in our third election, in 1796. A Federalist Elector voted for Democratic-Republican Jefferson instead of Federalist Adams. Although three supposedly Democratic-Republican Electors voted for Adams, there is some disagreement about their being the first “faithless Electors.” They were close friends of John Adams and party lines were not clearly drawn.
But the next instance was definitely a “faithless Elector.” In 1820, James Monroe carried every state in the Union in his successful re-election campaign. One Elector, named Plummer, in New Hampshire voted for Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Again, there is some uncertainty about Plummer’s motives. The most accepted story is that Plummer, a former governor of his state, so revered George Washington that he did not wish anyone else to be remembered by history as having equaled Washington’s unanimous election. Another version is that Plummer grew dissatisfied with Monroe’s policies and voted for Adams in protest.
There were no further faithless Electors until 1948 when Preston Parks, a Truman Elector in Tennessee, voted for Governor Strom Thurmond who was running for President on the Dixiecrat ticket. That is the same Strom Thurmond who has been a Senator from South Carolina since 1955, and is now the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
In 1956, W.F. Turner, who had been elected as a Stevenson (Democratic) Elector voted instead for Walter E. Jones, a local judge. By the time he cast his vote for Jones, Turner knew that his candidate had lost the election, and that his vote would not make a difference in the outcome.
In the close 1960 presidential race, a Nixon Elector named Henry D. Irwin of Oklahoma changed his vote to Harry F. Byrd, a Senator from Virginia. Byrd had run as an independent, and gained votes in the South where the southern Democrats did not agree with Kennedy’s civil rights position. Byrd won all of Mississippi’s eight electoral votes, six of Alabama’s eleven electoral votes, and the one from the faithless elector in Oklahoma. Again, it was not enough to change the results, but it did make an already tight election even closer.
In 1968, Dr. Lloyd Bailey, a Nixon Elector from North Carolina, cast his vote for American Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace. Wallace carried five Deep South states that year, plus this one vote from North Carolina for a total of 46 electoral votes. Wallace came very close to denying either of the two major candidates (Nixon and Humphrey) an electoral majority and thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Wallace hoped that by doing so, he would have the balance of power in choosing the next President and thus be able to extract concessions from one or both of the candidates.
In 1972, Roger L. MacBride voted for the Libertarian Party candidate, John Hospers. MacBride had been elected as a Nixon Elector in Virginia. After receiving a great deal of publicity, MacBride ran for President as a Libertarian in 1976.
Another recent faithless Elector was Mike Padden of the state of Washington. He was chosen as a Ford Elector in 1976, but voted instead for Ronald Reagan, the former California governor who had tried unsuccessfully to take the Republican nomination away from President Ford.
The most recent faithless Elector was a Democrat from West Virginia in 1988. Although she voted for the Democratic candidates to whom she was pledged, she “reversed” her votes. She voted for Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, for President and Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Presidential candidate, for Vice President.
In most of these cases, faithless Electors knew their candidates had already lost the election, and that changing their vote would not matter. The motivation may have been publicity, gain, or desire to make a political statement. But one or two Electors straying from their pledged candidate could change the outcome of the election. We have had some very close elections, including one where the margin of victory was a single electoral vote (Hayes beat Tilden 185-184 in 1876). A faithless Elector or two in one of these close contests could actually change the final results of the entire election.
Proposals have been made to remedy this situation. One of the most often made suggestions is to maintain the electoral system, but have a state’s electoral votes cast automatically, with no individuals involved, and no possibility of faithless Electors opposing the will of the voters. Certainly, political parties have been much more careful in recent years about how they choose their candidates for the position of Elector. Until something changes, let’s hope they continue to be careful.