15

With regards to the ongoing US presidential elections, I just read this on electoral-vote.com:

Could There Be Faithless Electors?

Presidential electors are supposed to vote for the person who got the most votes in their state (or for three electors in Nebraska and two in Maine, their district). But an electoral vote for someone else counts, even though it may violate state law. If the electoral vote is close, there will be intense lobbying of the electors to switch sides. Electors have received death threats in the past. No doubt some have been offered bribes as well.

This gives the impression that it would be very unusual, but still a real possibility.

My question is, when was the last time (if ever) an elector was "faithless" in US presidential elections, i.e., voted for someone else than the candidate who got the most votes in their state (or district)?

33

It actually happens fairly often. The last was in 2004, where a Minnesota elector (who would not own up to it) voted for Edwards (the VP candidate) instead of John Kerry. The assumption has been that this was done out of incompetence rather than malice.

The cycle before that, the DC elector refused to vote, in protest to DC having no congressional representation.

Wikipedia has a full list.

The last elector to cast a vote for a presidential candidate of another party was Roger MacBride in '72, who pledged to vote Republican but instead voted for the Libertarians. (Incidentally making Tonie Nathan the first woman to ever receive an electoral vote)

The only election I can find where a faithless elector voted for the POTUS candidate from the other major party was in 1796, where Samuel Miles (our very first faithless elector) pledged to support the Federalist, but voted for the Democratic Republican (Jefferson) instead.


Answering a question in the comments, there further was never an instance where faithless electors significanly altered the results of an election. In fact, it appears that electoral votes not being particularly close may be an inducement to faithless electors, as most incidents seem to be protest votes.*

There was however one interesting incident of mass-faithlessness. In the 1872 election one of the major-party POTUS candidates, (apparently as a gift to us US history nuts) died after electors were chosen but before they could cast their votes. He'd only gotten 66 electors (nowhere enough to challenge U.S. Grant), but all but three ended up voting for other people. Under the circumstances, rather than tar those electors as "faithless", it may be right to look further askance at the 3 who remained faithful and voted for the dead guy.

* - The "faithless elector" who voted for Reagan instead of Ford in 1976 did an interview on Ken Rudin's Political Junkie podcast #158, and admitted he would not have done so if the vote had been close.

  • Thanks! Looking at the list, it seems very rare though that an elector votes for the opposing main candidate instead of the one (s)he's pledged to. No such cases in recent history at least. – Jonik Nov 6 '12 at 22:19
  • 2
    Has it ever happened that a faithless elector changed the outcome of the US election? – SMeznaric Nov 12 '12 at 15:31
  • Interesting, can a dead guy be elected a president? If so, will it be the vice-president candidate to occupy the office? – Anixx Nov 12 '12 at 22:17
  • 2
    @SMeznaric according to here en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faithless_elector the faithless elector has never changed the outcome of the vote. – user6591 Sep 1 '15 at 1:23
  • 1
    @Michael The podcast I linked the in note today talked about this a bit. There's no federal law about who they can vote for, although some people are not eligible to serve. So they are free to vote however they want. There are state laws, but the faithless elector from 1976 expressed doubt they'd stand up to a constitutional challenge. Not sure as to his expertise on that. – T.E.D. Nov 17 '16 at 22:02
5

For completeness:

In the 2016 election there were seven faithless electors, which is the highest number since 1872.

Quoting electoral-vote.com, Dec 20:

Five Clinton electors defected, with one from Hawaii voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), three from Washington voting for former general Colin Powell, and another from Washington voting for Dakota pipeline protester Faith Spotted Eagle. Two Trump electors from Texas also rebelled, with one of those voting for Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) and the other voting for former representative Ron Paul.

3

One elector went for Ronald Reagan in 1976--the first time he ran, not when he won the race.:

from Wikipedia on the 1976 Electoral College results:

Washington Elector Mike Padden, pledged for Republicans Gerald Ford and Bob Dole, cast his presidential electoral vote for Ronald Reagan, who had challenged Ford for the Republican nomination. He cast his vice presidential vote, as pledged, for Dole.

  • FWIW: There's an interview with Mr. Padden about his vote in this podcast. – T.E.D. Aug 8 '17 at 16:25
2

This is more than "a real possibility."

The mechanisms exist for it to happen. There is no federal law preventing an elector from pledging their vote to one candidate, and then voting for another.

The likelihood of its happening is a different matter. Here are the factors affecting that probability:

The Constitution prescribes the use of the Electoral College, but it is the states that govern who can become an elector, and how the electors pledge their votes. This authority has been tested and confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Since the candidate electors are selected by the political parties, it would be political suicide for them to renege on their pledge. In addition, about half of the states have laws that impose punishment on electors who vote for a candidate different from the one to whom their vote was pledged. Michigan even has a provision for such votes to be voided.

These state laws have never been tested in the Supreme Court.

In addition, as a last firewall, any state's votes can be challenged in Congress, as long as there are one Representative and one Senator sponsoring the challenge. If one party rules both houses of Congress, as it does now, a challenge would be more likely to succeed.

So, an outright revolt against the popular vote (at the state level) seems to be highly unlikely to succeed.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.