Facts About Faithless Electors and the Electoral College

cartoon representations of electoral college electors

When you cast your vote in presidential elections, you are voting for a slate of Electors even though their names generally aren’t on the ballot. Each state has an Elector for each of its members of Congress, and two for each Senator. That’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and three electors from the District of Columbia.

This controversial system, created almost 250 years ago, faces much criticism today. However, today it remains in place and will determine the next presidential election.

Since 1964, 538 Electors determine the fate of the presidency. However, after each Census count every decade, the numbers for each state can change.

Now, let’s look at some interesting facts about Faithless Electors and the Electoral College.

Four Other Methods Were Proposed for Presidential Elections

Although we know the Electoral College determines the presidency and vice presidency, that was the result of a compromise. In 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia at a Constitutional Convention. There, they couldn’t all agree on the best method to elect a chief executive, a new concept at the time.

According to the National Constitution Center, there were four possible methods proposed other than the Electoral College:

  1. Direct election by voters
  2. Election by state legislatures
  3. Election by state governors
  4. Election by Congress

After debate, the Electoral College won out, but initially, the Electors could cast two votes for President. Then, the two candidates with the highest votes became President and Vice President. However, this method proved problematic, and in 1804, the 12th Amendment called for separate votes for President and Vice President.

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Five Presidents Didn’t Earn the Popular Vote

Sometimes, the Electoral College or the House of Representatives determines who rises to the presidency despite losing the popular vote. Historically, it’s happened five times. 

The House chose Democratic-Republican President John Quincy Adams in 1824 after Democratic-Republican Andrew Jackson won the popular vote. Why? Jackson didn’t earn the majority of electoral votes, so the election was determined by the House.

Perhaps most dramatically of all, Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes won by a single electoral vote in 1876. Nevertheless, Democrat Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote by some 254,235 votes.

In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd President, beating Democrat Grover Cleveland, the incumbent. However, Cleveland had won the popular vote by some 90,596 votes.

Then in 2000, Republican President George W. Bush took office though he lost the popular vote by 543,895 votes to Democrat former Vice President Al Gore. After a contentious and almost tied vote count in Florida, the Supreme Court determined the election, awarding the Florida election to Bush. With this win, Bush won the Electoral College vote by only one more vote than was required. Notably, one Gore elector abstained from voting.

Finally, in 2016, Republican Donald Trump became the 45th President though he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes to Democrat Hillary Clinton. President Trump won the election with 304 electoral votes versus Clinton’s 227.

Faithless Electors Have Never Decided a Presidency

So-called “Faithless Electors” ignore their pledge to vote for a candidate. However, it’s historically rare and has never decided a presidency. Nevertheless, there have been over 150 Faithless Electors since 1978, according to the National Constitution Center.

Faithless Electors Almost Changed a Vice Presidency

The Senate chose the ninth Vice President of the United States, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentuck. Notably, it was the only time in history that the Senate exercised the Twelfth Amendment, which states, “if no person has a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President.”

Faithless Electors had refused to vote for Johnson, switching to William Smith of Alabama. Thus, Johnson lacked one vote needed to secure the vice presidency. Then, the Senate cast their votes, and Johnson became Vice President. Before this, Johnson had served for three decades in the House and Senate, spanning five presidential administrations.

Faithless Electors Chose Not to Vote for a Dead Candidate

Imagine a candidate passing away between Election Day and the day the Electoral College votes. Although it sounds unlikely, it has happened. In those cases, Electors chose not to vote for a dead candidate, which certainly makes sense. 

In total, 63 “deviant votes” were cast for another candidate due to the nominee’s death. That was in 1872 in the Grant vs. Greeley election. That year, the Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant defeated Horace Greeley, the Liberal Republican, and Democratic candidate with 286 electoral votes. Sadly, Greeley died after the election and the Electors then divided their votes up between the remaining five candidates.

Those 63 votes make up two-thirds of all deviant Elector votes in history.

Since 1872, the 2016 Presidential Election Had the Most Faithless Electors

The 2016 presidential election saw the highest number of Faithless Electors since 1872. That year, eight Democratic and two Republican Electors chose to cast so-called “deviant” votes for President. Also, seven of the same group chose not to vote for their party’s nominee for Vice President. However, these Electors did not impact the outcome of the election, according to FairVote.org.

One Elector from Maine cast his vote for Bernie Sanders, but was ruled out of order and switched his vote back to Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, two Republican Electors from Texas chose to vote for John Kasich and Ron Paul instead of Donald Trump. In all, seven votes went to candidates other than Trump or Clinton, but not enough to affect the outcome.

See more about the Electoral College via TED-Ed below:

Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube