In United States presidential elections, a faithless elector is a member of the United States Electoral College who does not vote for the presidential or vice presidential candidate for whom he or she had pledged to vote. They may vote for another candidate or not vote at all. Faithless electors are pledged electors and thus different from unpledged electors.
Electors are typically chosen and nominated by a political party or the party's presidential nominee. Electors usually are party members with a reputation for high loyalty to the party and its candidate. A faithless elector runs the risk of party censure and political retaliation from their party as well as, in some states, potential criminal penalties. Candidates for elector are nominated by state political parties in the months prior to Election Day. In some states, the electors are nominated in primaries, the same way that other candidates are nominated. In some states, such as Oklahoma, Virginia and North Carolina, electors are nominated in party conventions. In Pennsylvania, the campaign committee of each candidate names their candidates for elector (an attempt to discourage faithless electors). The parties have generally been successful in keeping their electors faithful, leaving out the cases in which a candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote.
Although there have been 157 cases of faithlessness, faithless electors have not changed the outcome of any presidential election to date.
Twenty-one states do not have laws that compel their electors to vote for a pledged candidate. Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have laws to penalize faithless electors, although these have never been enforced. In place of penalizing a faithless elector, some states, like Michigan and Minnesota, specify that the faithless elector's vote is void.
Until 2008, Minnesota's electors cast secret ballots, so that it was not possible to tell if a particular elector was faithless. When in 2004 an unknown elector was faithless, Minnesota law was amended to provide for public balloting of the electors' votes and invalidation of a vote cast for someone other than the candidate to whom the elector is pledged.
The constitutionality of state pledge laws was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1952 in Ray v. Blair. The court ruled in favor of the state's right to require electors to pledge to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged, as well as to remove electors who refuse to pledge. Once the elector has voted, his or her vote can be changed only in states such as Michigan and Minnesota, where votes other than those pledged are rendered invalid. In the twenty-nine states that have laws against faithless electors, a faithless elector may only be punished after he or she votes. The Supreme Court has ruled that, as electors are chosen via state elections, they act as a function of the state, not the federal government. Therefore states have the right to govern electors. The constitutionality of state laws punishing electors for actually casting a faithless vote—rather than merely refusing to pledge—has never been decided by the Supreme Court.
In 157 instances, electors have cast their votes for President or Vice President in a manner different from that prescribed by the legislature of the state they represented. Of those, 71 votes were changed because the original candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote. Two votes were not cast at all when electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The remaining 85 were changed by the elector's personal interest, or perhaps by accident. Usually, the faithless electors act alone. An exception was the U.S. presidential election of 1836, in which 23 Virginia electors conspired to change their vote together.
As of the 2012 presidential election, there has been only one occasion when faithless electors prevented an expected winner from winning the electoral college vote: in December 1836, twenty-three faithless electors prevented Richard Mentor Johnson, the expected candidate, from winning the Vice Presidency. However, Johnson was promptly elected Vice President by the U.S. Senate in February 1837; therefore, faithless electors have never changed the expected final outcome of the entire election process.
List of faithless electors
Electors do not have to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in any particular state. The following is a list of all faithless electors (in reverse chronological order). The number preceding each entry is the number of faithless electors for the given year.
2000 to present
(1) 2004 election: A Minnesota elector, pledged for Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards, cast his or her presidential vote for John Ewards [sic], rather than Kerry, presumably by accident. (All of Minnesota's electors cast their vice presidential ballots for John Edwards.) Minnesota's electors cast secret ballots, so unless one of the electors claims responsibility, it is unlikely that the identity of the faithless elector will ever be known. As a result of this incident, Minnesota Statutes were amended to provide for public balloting of the electors' votes and invalidation of a vote cast for someone other than the candidate to whom the elector is pledged.
(1) 2000 election: Washington, D.C. Elector Barbara Lett-Simmons, pledged for Democrats Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, cast no electoral votes as a protest of Washington D.C.'s lack of statehood, which she described as the federal district's "colonial status."
1972 to 1996
(1) 1988 election: West Virginia Elector Margaret Leach, pledged for Democrats Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen, instead cast her votes for the candidates in the reverse of their positions on the national ticket; her presidential vote went to Bentsen and her vice presidential vote to Dukakis.
(-) 1984 election: In Illinois, the electors, pledged to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, conducted their vote in a secret ballot. When the electors voted for Vice President, one of the votes was for Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic nominee. After several minutes of confusion, a second ballot was taken. Bush won unanimously in this ballot, and it was this ballot that was reported to Congress.
(1) 1976 election: 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.
(1) 1972 election: Virginia Elector Roger MacBride, pledged for Republicans Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, cast his electoral votes for Libertarian candidates John Hospers and Theodora Nathan. MacBride's vote for Nathan was the first electoral vote cast for a woman in U.S. history. MacBride became the Libertarian candidate for President in the 1976 election.
1912 to 1968
(1) 1968 election: North Carolina Elector Lloyd W. Bailey, pledged for Republicans Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, cast his votes for American Independent Party candidates George Wallace and Curtis LeMay.
(1) 1960 election: Oklahoma Elector Henry D. Irwin, pledged for Republicans Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., cast his presidential electoral vote for Democratic non-candidate Harry Flood Byrd and his vice presidential electoral vote for Republican Barry Goldwater. (Fourteen unpledged electors also voted for Byrd for president, but supported Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, for vice president.)
(1) 1948 election: Two Tennessee electors were on both the Democratic Party and the States' Rights Democratic Party slates. When the Democratic Party slate won, one of these electors voted for the Democratic nominees Harry Truman and Alben Barkley. The other, Preston Parks, cast his votes for States' Rights Democratic Party candidates Strom Thurmond and Fielding Wright, making him a faithless elector.
(8) 1912 election: Republican vice presidential candidate James S. Sherman died before the election. Eight Republican electors had pledged their votes to him but voted for Nicholas Murray Butler instead.
1860 to 1896
(4) 1896 election: The Democratic Party and the People’s Party both ran William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate, but ran different candidates for Vice President. The Democratic Party nominated Arthur Sewall and the People’s Party nominated Thomas E. Watson. The People’s Party won 31 electoral votes but four of those electors voted with the Democratic ticket, supporting Bryan as President and Sewall as Vice President.
(6) 1892 election: In Oregon, three electors voted for Democrat Grover Cleveland, and one for the third-party Populist candidate. All four were pledged to Republican President Benjamin Harrison, who failed to get reelected. Also, in North Dakota, one elector voted for the Democrats and one for the Populists, while the Republicans had won the state.
(63) 1872 election: 63 electors for Horace Greeley changed their votes after Greeley's death, which occurred before the electoral vote could be cast. Greeley's remaining three electors cast their presidential votes for Greeley and had their votes discounted by Congress.
1812 to 1836
(23) 1836 election: The Democratic Party nominated Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky as their vice presidential candidate. The 23 electors from Virginia refused to support Johnson with their votes upon learning of the allegation that he had lived with an African-American woman. There was no majority in the Electoral College and the decision was deferred to the Senate, which supported Johnson as the Vice President.
(32) 1832 election: Two National Republican Party electors from the state of Maryland refused to vote for presidential candidate Henry Clay and did not cast a vote for him or for his running mate. All 30 electors from Pennsylvania refused to support the Democratic vice presidential candidate Martin Van Buren, voting instead for William Wilkins.
(1) 1820 election: William Plumer pledged to vote for Democratic Republican candidate James Monroe, but he cast his vote for John Quincy Adams who was also a Democratic Republican, but was not a candidate in the 1820 election. Some historians contend that Plumer did not feel that the Electoral College should unanimously elect any President other than George Washington, but this claim is disputed. (Monroe lost another three votes because three electors died before casting ballots and were not replaced.)
(6) 1808 election: Six electors from New York were pledged to vote for Democratic Republican James Madison as President and George Clinton as Vice President. Instead, they voted for Clinton to be President, with three voting for Madison as Vice President and the other three voting for James Monroe to be Vice President.
(-) 1800 election: New York elector Anthony Lispenard demanded to be able to cast a secret ballot, rather than a public one as state law required, apparently because he wanted to cast both of his votes for Aaron Burr instead of one each for Burr and Thomas Jefferson. This demand was necessary to force Burr's election as President, since voting for Burr and someone else would have (in theory) simply created a deadlock in the electoral college and a run-off vote, which Jefferson would have likely won. However, Lispenard's demand was rejected by the state, and he voted as pledged, for Jefferson and Burr. Ironically, errors in the Democratic-Republican voting strategy meant that Jefferson and Burr ended up tying 73-73 in the electoral college, meaning that Lispenard could have caused Burr to become President all along by simply not casting his second vote, or voting for someone who was not a candidate, although he had no way of knowing this would be the case when he voted.
(1) 1796 election: Samuel Miles, an elector from Pennsylvania, was pledged to vote for Federalist presidential candidate John Adams, but voted for Democratic Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson. He cast his other presidential vote as pledged for Thomas Pinckney. (This election took place prior to the passage of the 12th Amendment, so there were not separate ballots for president and vice president.)
- ElectoralVote.com – Current Assigning of Electors
- For 2000 list of 24 states, see
- "The Electoral College - "Faithless Electors"". Fairvote.org. Retrieved May 5, 2009.
- "Michigan Election Law Section 168.47". Legislature.mi.gov. Retrieved 2010-08-26.
- "208.08, 2008 Minnesota Statutes". Revisor.leg.state.mn.us. Retrieved May 5, 2009.
- Ray v. Blair 343 U.S. 214 (1952)
- "MPR: Minnesota elector gives Edwards a vote; Kerry gets other nine". News.minnesota.publicradio.org. Retrieved 2009-05-05.
- "208.08, 2008 Minnesota Statutes". Revisor.leg.state.mn.us. Retrieved 2009-05-05.
- Stout, David (2000-12-19). "The 43rd President: The Electoral College; The Electors Vote, and the Surprises Are Few". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-30.
But it was Mr. Gore who suffered an erosion today. Barbara Lett Simmons, a Gore elector from the District of Columbia, left her ballot blank to protest what she called the capital's "colonial status" -- its lack of a voting representative in Congress.
- "Center for Voting and Democracy". Fairvote.org. 2004-12-14. Retrieved 2009-05-05.
- List of Electors Bound by State Law and Pledges, as of November 2000
- "The Electoral College - "Faithless Electors"". Official website of the Center for Voting and Democracy. 2002. Retrieved December 5, 2006.
- "Faithless Electors". Website of FairVote, formerly the Center for Voting and Democracy. Retrieved June 11, 2008.