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In United States presidential elections, an unpledged elector is a person nominated to stand as an elector but who has not pledged to support any particular presidential or vice presidential candidate, and is free to vote for any candidate when elected a member of the Electoral College. Presidential elections are indirect, with voters in each state choosing electors on Election Day in November, and these electors choosing the President of the United States and Vice President of the United States in December. Electors today are elected in every state by popular vote, and in practice have since the 19th century almost always agreed in advance to vote for a particular candidate — that is, they are said to have been pledged to that candidate. In the 20th century, however, several elections were contested by unpledged electors, who made no pledge to any candidate before the election. These anomalies largely arose over fissures within the Democratic Party over the issues of civil rights and segregation. There have been no unpledged electors in the Electoral College since 1960, and no serious general election campaign has been mounted to elect unpledged electors in any state since 1964.
When the United States Constitution was written, the Founding Fathers intended the Electoral College to be a truly deliberative body whose members would choose a President (and Vice President, after 1800) based on their own preferences. They also left the method for selecting the electors for each state to the discretion of that state's legislature. Thus, the Constitution places no restriction on the behavior of the electors, and assumes that each is an independent agent.
While the electors in the first few U.S. presidential elections may have cast their votes along these lines, U.S. politics very quickly became dominated by strong political party organizations, and by the 1830s most states chose their electors by popular vote. As a result, the electors who appeared on ballots were nominated by the state chapters of national parties with the understanding that they would cast their votes for their party's candidate if elected. This became such a given in Presidential elections that most states eventually stopped listing the names of the electors on ballots, instead listing the candidate to whom those electors were pledged.
Unpledged electors in the 20th century
After the American Civil War and Reconstruction, the Democratic Party gained an almost unbreakable dominance in the Southern United States, and the Republicans, associated with Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause, were correspondingly unelectable there. While the leaders of the Democratic Party in the South were in many aspects conservative, supportive of segregation and opposed to civil rights for African Americans, the nationwide Democratic party became increasingly liberal in the early 20th century, a movement that accelerated with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In several mid-20th century elections, Democrats put slates of unpledged electors on the ballots in several Southern states; in some cases they ran in opposition to electors pledged to the nationwide Democratic candidate, and in others they were the only Democratic electors that appeared on the ballot. The goal was to have electors who could act as kingmakers in a close election, extracting concessions that would favor conservative Southern Democrats in exchange for their votes.
The first modern slates of unpledged electors were fielded in the 1944 election as a protest against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and support for desegregation. In Texas, a splinter group of Democrats known as the Texas Regulars fielded a slate of electors not pledged to any candidate; similar slates were on the ballot in South Carolina and Mississippi. While they won or placed second in several counties, none of the groups met much success.
In 1956, unpledged slates were on the ballot in Alabama (20,150 votes, 4.1% of the vote), Louisiana (44,520 votes, 7.2% of the vote and they won four parishes), Mississippi (42,266 votes, 17.3% of the vote and they won seven counties) and South Carolina (88,509 votes, 29.5% of the vote and 21 counties).
The 1960 election was the only election that saw unpledged electors actually elected to the electoral college. In that year, a slate of eight unpledged electors in Mississippi won a plurality of the vote there (116,248 votes, or 39% of the total). In Alabama, where the vote was not for the presidential candidates but for individual electors, five of the eleven elected Democratic electors were pledged to Democratic nominees John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and six were unpledged. Louisiana's popular vote went to a slate of electors pledged to Kennedy and Johnson, but a slate of unpledged electors on the ballot there won 169,572 votes (21% of the vote).
When the electoral college cast its vote, all fourteen unpledged electors cast their votes for conservative Democrat Harry F. Byrd for President and Strom Thurmond for Vice President. They were joined by faithless Republican elector Henry D. Irwin, from Oklahoma, though Irwin cast his Vice Presidential vote for Barry Goldwater. Irwin had attempted to broker a coalition between the unpledged electors and other Republican electors, but to no avail: Kennedy and Johnson won a majority of the electoral vote, though the unusual situation with the mixed elector slate in Alabama makes it difficult to say that the Democratic ticket won the popular vote.
1964 election and after
The last slate of unpledged electors to date was filed in Alabama in the 1964 election. The slate was supported by Democratic Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, whilst the national Democratic nominees, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey, did not appear on Alabama ballots. The electors won 30.6 percent of the vote, but the state was ultimately won by Republican nominees Barry Goldwater and William E. Miller.
The Republican ticket’s victory in Alabama and four other Southern states (the only states Goldwater carried besides his home state of Arizona) heralded a trend that would put an end to the practice of nominating unpledged electors. As a strategy, it had been largely ineffective, and southern conservatives, many of whom were still loath to vote Republican, began urging Governor Wallace to run for the White House in 1968 under the auspices of a traditional third party presidential campaign. Once Wallace announced his intention to run for President, the rationale for running slates of unpledged electors disappeared. Wallace ultimately carried four Southern states under the American Independent Party banner in addition to his home state of Alabama (in which he ran as the official nominee of the state’s Democratic Party). Following Republican Richard Nixon’s triumph in 1968, former Southern Democratic supporters began voting Republican in large numbers. In summary, the practice of nominating unpledged electors combined with Wallace's third party presidential campaign can be seen a transitional phase between the Democrats' traditional hold on the South to the modern political environment where the area is a Republican stronghold.
- Fortier, John C.; Walter Berns (2004). After the People Vote: a guide to the Electoral College. American Enterprise Institute. p. 7. ISBN 0-8447-4202-3.
- McLean, Iain; Arnold B. Urken; Fiona Hewitt (1995). "Introduction: what is social choice?". Classics of social choice. University of Michigan Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-472-10450-0.
- Kimberling, William C. "The Electoral College". Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
- 1960 Presidential General Election Results – Alabama Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
- Fund, John (November 20, 2003). "A Minority President". Opinion Journal. Archived from the original on November 23, 2003. Retrieved 25 August 2016.