Presidential electors are compelled by law or expected by their parties to cast votes for their party nominees. An elector who decides to vote for someone other than their party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees is called a faithless elector.
The history of faithless electors reveals a split between votes made out of necessity and conscientious opposition to candidates.
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Faithless Elector Laws
Before understanding how faithless electors vote, it’s important to understand how electors are considered faithless. Electors are selected by each party to cast votes for presidential and vice presidential nominees every four years. The U.S. Constitution does not establish requirements on how electors are selected or for whom they vote, leaving regulation of electors to the states.
The District of Columbia and 29 states maintain statutes that require electors to vote for their party nominees. These statutes often impose fines on electors who vote for candidates outside of their party nominees. Parties are also empowered to remove faithless electors and appoint replacements.
The remaining 21 states do not establish statutory requirements on elector voting. This does not mean the faithless electors in these states cast votes for non-ticket candidates without consequences. Party officials may replace electors who plan on voting for other candidates. Faithless electors may also face informal sanction from their parties including removal from party posts. (For more: See how electors are chosen.)
Faithless elector laws have rarely been used due to the relative scarcity of faithless electors. Washington imposed fines on three faithless electors following the 2016 presidential election. Three Democratic electors cast their votes for former Secretary of State Colin Powell rather than party nominee Hillary Clinton. The $1,000 fine for each elector was upheld in state administrative court in December 2017.
Trends in Faithless Elector Votes
From 1789 to 2016, there were 167 electors who voted against their party’s wishes. Seventy-one of these electors cast ballots for different candidates because their party presidential or vice-presidential nominees died prior to the Electoral College vote. An additional 29 electors abstained or swapped presidential and vice-presidential nominees, representing “abnormal votes.” The remaining 67 electors selected candidates outside of their party tickets due to personal or political objections.
The first faithless elector in American history was Samuel Miles following the 1796 presidential election. Miles was a Federalist elector who was expected to vote for Vice President John Adams. The Pennsylvania elector opted to vote for Adams rival and former U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Adams won enough electoral votes to win the presidency, while Jefferson won the vice presidency.
A faithless elector prevented a unanimous victory following the 1820 presidential election. President James Monroe ran unopposed due to the collapse of the Federalist Party following the 1816 election. New Hampshire elector William Plummer Sr. believed that George Washington’s unanimous elections in 1789 and 1792 should remain unique and voted for John Quincy Adams. In these elections, Washington was considered unopposed as the presidential candidate while John Adams and others were considered candidates for vice president.
The largest number of faithless electors during this period followed the 1872 presidential election between Republican Ulysses Grant and Democrat Horace Greeley. Greeley died following the presidential election, leaving his electors in limbo. Sixty-three Democratic electors split their votes among Thomas Hendricks (48), Benjamin Brown (12), Charles Jenkins (2), and David Davis (1).
In the early 19th century, there were several instances of electors objecting to vice presidential nominees. In 1812, a trio of Federalist electors cast their ballots for Democratic-Republican vice presidential nominee Elbridge Gerry rather than Federalist nominee Jared Ingersoll. Seven Democratic electors from Georgia objected to vice presidential nominee John Calhoun by voting for William Smith in 1828. A deadlock in the 1836 vice presidential vote represented the only case where faithless electors forced a vote in Congress.
The Election of 1836
The Election of 1836 took place amidst the partisan conflict between the Democratic Party and the emerging Whig Party. Following the 1832 presidential election, Vice President Martin Van Buren’s lack of popularity in Pennsylvania led 30 state electors to cast ballots for William Wilkins. Andrew Jackson and Van Buren won enough electoral votes to overcome this defection due to a split among anti-Democratic candidates.
When Van Buren ran for president in 1836, he ran with Richard Mentor Johnson from Kentucky as the vice presidential nominee. Johnson’s place on the ticket drew the ire of Virginian Democrats who questioned Johnson’s support for the controversial Bank of the United States. The electors also raised concerns that Johnson’s relationships with black women ran afoul of the cultural values of the time.
Van Buren and Johnson won enough votes in the presidential election to secure the presidency and vice presidency. Twenty-three electors from Virginia decided to vote for William Smith from South Carolina rather than Johnson. The lack of an electoral vote majority for any vice presidential candidate triggered a U.S. Senate vote to break the deadlock.
The U.S. Constitution requires the U.S. House to break electoral deadlocks for president and the U.S. Senate to break deadlocks for vice president. Johnson and Whig Party nominee Francis Granger were the two candidates up for selection. The Senate voted 33-17 to give Johnson the vice presidency.
Recent History of Faithless Electors
The topsy-turvy nature of electoral votes in the 19th century gave way to relative calm in the 20th and early 21st centuries. There were 17 faithless electoral votes in the 29 presidential elections between 1900 and 2016. Eight of these voters were cast following the 1912 election when Republican vice presidential candidate James Sherman died following the presidential election. The faithless electors voted for Nicholas Murray Butler in a losing effort for a ticket led by President William Howard Taft.
A trio of electors expressed their displeasure with Republican nominee Richard Nixon across three elections. Oklahoma elector Henry Irwin opposed Nixon and Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, opting for a ticket of Harry Byrd and Barry Goldwater. In 1968, Lloyd Bailey from North Carolina went against Nixon’s campaign to vote for independent candidate George Wallace. Virginia Republican elector Roger McBridge opposed Nixon’s re-election campaign by casting his vote for Libertarian Party candidate John Hospers.
The 2016 presidential election represented the largest number of faithless electors against living candidates since 1836. A total of 10 faithless electors went against their party’s wishes with eight Democratic and two Republican faithless electors. The Democratic faithless electors cast three votes for Colin Powell, three votes for Bernie Sanders, and one vote each for Faith Spotted Eagle and John Kasich. Republican faithless electors cast one vote each for John Kasich and Ron Paul. There was an unsuccessful effort prior to the December electoral vote to shift enough votes to force a congressional resolution to the election.