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Think Faithless Electors Will Change The Outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election? Think Again.

On the electoral college campus by L.M. Glackens for Puck, June 12, 1907. Illustration shows Uncle Sam and William Jennings Bryan wearing caps and gowns during the graduation ceremonies at the "Electoral College"; Jennings is holding a book "Reveries of a Candidate".

On the electoral college campus by L.M. Glackens for Puck, June 12, 1907. Illustration shows Uncle Sam and William Jennings Bryan wearing caps and gowns during the graduation ceremonies at the “Electoral College”; Jennings is holding a book “Reveries of a Candidate”.

The electoral college has outraged millions of Americans–again. However, this time, instead of just looking to do away with the process, voters are also looking to the elusive faithless elector.

Alex Keyssar, a professor of history at Harvard and the author of the upcoming book “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” said in an email, “Only if someone wins a majority of the electoral votes do they become president.”

A faithless elector is a member of the electoral college who refuses to cast their vote for the candidate who won the state that the elector represents. By now, most  voters know that they cast a vote for a slate of electors–not the actual president. In BackStory’s episode, “Pulling The Curtain,” host Peter Onuf broke it down like this: “Those electors actually vote for the candidates.” The number of electors a state gets varies. To figure it out, Onuf said, “Just add up the number of your congressional representatives and your two senators.”

(Learn more about the electoral college by listening to the entire segment.)

Every elector has the ability to flip, although depending on the state, some may be fined if they do so. Still, many Americans are putting their faith in the “faithless” elector and  petitioning their electors to vote for someone else. In some cases, anyone else.

A quick search of “electoral college” on change.org, the website for online petitions, returns more than 5,000 results. Searching for “faithless elector” brings those results down to 82.

Americans have gotten very creative with these petitions.The most popular faithless elector petition asks to “Make Hillary Clinton President on Dec. 19.” It has more than four million signatures. The second most popular, with more than 23,000 signatures, asks to “Put a Republican in the White House who is NOT Donald Trump!” This petition targets electors in states that won’t punish those who become faithless.

To date, Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by more than one million in the popular vote. Should that be enough to sway electors to cast their votes for anyone else, and Trump drops below 270, things could get interesting.

Without the 270 majority, Keyssar said “the election goes to the House [of Representatives] where each state has one vote. Presumably Trump would be elected, since most state delegations have Republican majorities.”

There have been faithless electors in the past. Philip Klinkner, a professor of government, pointed to the election of 1836  as an instance when a faithless group of 23 electors from Virginia “almost managed to dump the winning VP candidate.” That candidate was Richard M. Johnson, who lived and fathered children with his African-American partner, Julia Chinn. Because the electors withheld their votes, Johnson fell short of a majority. Still, the Senate voted for him anyway.

A more recent example is the 2004 presidential election when one Minnesota elector cast a vote for North Carolina Senator John Edwards instead of the Democratic candidate, John Kerry. Klinkner wrote in a message that electors from Minnesota vote anonymously, “so we don’t know which one it was.”

With all of the post-election outcry, BackStory host Brian Balogh believes there is a possibility that we will once again encounter a faithless elector. Perhaps even more than one. Michael Montgomery, a political scientist who’s now a consultant with his own firm, wrote in an email that because the college “is a body of representatives rather than delegates” Clinton, in theory, could win.

Still, as Dec. 19 (the date members of the electoral college meet to cast their votes this year) approaches, many Americans may be betting that enough faithless electors will emerge and change the outcome. And they will probably lose because if there was one thing Keyssar, Klinkner, Balogh and Montgomery all agreed upon, the chances of it happening are close to zero.


Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
434-924-6894
dianaw@virginia.edu