Faithless and Unpledged Presidential Electors

On October 16, I posted a piece about the Presidential Electoral College. I described the practice of Electors pledging themselves to candidates in advance of elections. I said that, with exceptions, Electors vote for those to whom they are pledged.

This raised the question of the exceptions to the practice. There are, in fact, many of them. They fall into two categories – Faithless Electors and Unpledged Electors.

Faithless Electors are Electors who have broken their pledges. There have been 158 of them in our history. The earliest was in 1796 when Samuel Miles, an Elector pledged to John Adams, cast a vote instead for Thomas Jefferson. This had no impact on the 1796 election, but would have in 1800 when Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied in the Electoral College, throwing the election into the House of Representatives where Jefferson won.

The most disruptive case of Faithless Electors was in the election of 1836 when 23 Electors from Virginia changed their votes as a bloc. The Democratic Party had nominated Richard M. Johnson for Vice President, but the 23 Virginia Electors refused to vote for him. As a result, neither Vice Presidential candidate got a majority. This threw the decision into the Senate where Johnson was elected anyway – including the votes of both Virginia Senators. The Virginia Electors voted for Martin Van Buren for President, as pledged, and he was elected.

Other than the Virginia 23, most Faithless Electors have been cases of individual protest, error or candidate death and have not had an impact on the outcome. The case with the largest number of Faithless Electors was in the election of 1872 when 63 changed their votes. The race was between President Ulysses S. Grant, running for a second term, and Horace Greeley. Grant won, but Greeley died before the Electoral College met, so 63 of the 66 Electors pledged to him changed their votes. The other three voted for Greeley anyway and had their votes thrown out by Congress.

Unpledged Electors have been used mostly by the Democratic Party in the South in an effort to stop civil rights laws and desegregation. There have even been slates of Unpledged Electors that have run against pledged Electors. In 1956, for example, the State Democratic parties of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina put up slates of Unpledged Electors. These slates got from 4 to 29 percent of the vote, but none made a difference in the outcome.

In 1960, the Democratic parties of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana put up slates of Unpledged Electors. Their plan was to block a majority for either candidate and to broker their votes in return for the withholding of civil rights efforts. Their plan failed when Kennedy won anyway.

The Alabama Democrats tried the same strategy again in 1964. It had the effect of Republican Barry Goldwater winning that State’s electoral votes. That not only ended attempts by a state to influence election outcomes through Unpledged Electors, but also began the trend of the southern States toward Republican majorities.

This year’s election could be close. If it is, it will be interesting to see if there are any Faithless or Unpledged Electors. Even if it isn’t close, it will be interesting to see if there are any.

8 thoughts on “Faithless and Unpledged Presidential Electors

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