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The Electoral College was established in Article II, Section I, of the United States Constitution, and was later modified by the Twelfth and Twenty-third amendments, which clarified the process.
When U.S. citizens vote for president and vice President every election cycle, ballots show the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, although they are actually electing a slate of "electors" that represent them in each state. The electors from every state combine to form the Electoral College.
Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (always two) plus the number of its U.S. House representatives (which may change each decade according to the size of each state's population as determined in the census).
See the list of state populations versus electoral votes
Each political party with a candidate on the ballot designates its own set of electors for each state, matching the number of electors they appoint with the number of electoral votes allotted to the state. This usually occurs at state party conventions. Electors are typically strong and loyal supporters of their political party, but can never be a U.S. Senator or Representative.
Electors are also generally free agents, as only 29 states require electors to vote as they have pledged, and many constitutional scholars believe those requirements would not stand in a court challenge.
After the election, by statutes in 48 states and the District of Columbia, the party that wins the most votes in that state appoints all of the electors for that state. This is known as a "winner-take-all" or "unit rule" allocation of electors, which became the norm across the nation by the 1830's. Currently, the only exceptions to the unit rule are in Maine and Nebraska that allocate their electors by congressional district, plus two at-large electors awarded to the candidate who wins the state's' popular votes.
By federal statute the electors for each state are required to cast their votes in mid-December, after which the votes are sealed and sent to the president of the U.S. Senate. Though the public votes for the party as a whole, the electors cast individual votes on separate ballots for president and vice president. This has become important in several elections in which electors voted for candidates other than those to whom they were pledged.
On January 6th, following the presidential election year, the president of the U.S. Senate opens all of the sealed envelopes containing the electoral votes and reads them aloud. To be elected as president or vice president, a candidate must have an absolute majority (50%, plus one vote) of the electoral votes for that position.
A majority is never guaranteed within the Electoral College. An election with no Electoral College majority could occur in two ways; if two candidates split the total of electoral votes evenly (with 538 electoral votes as of 2009, a tie would mean a split of 269-269) or if three or more candidates receive sufficient electoral votes to deny one candidate a majority.
If no presidential candidate obtains a majority of the electoral votes, the decision is deferred to the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives selects the president, choosing among the top three candidates, and the Senate selects the vice president, choosing between the top two candidates. In the House selection, each state delegation receives only one vote and an absolute majority of the states (26) is required to elect the president. (In this situation, Washington, D.C. would lose the voting power given to it by the 23rd Amendment since it does not have the same congressional representation given to the states).
However, a majority winner is not guaranteed in the Congress either. The states could feasibly split their votes equally between 2 candidates (25 state votes each) or the votes could be split between three candidates in such a way that no candidate receives a majority.
Also, since every state only gets one vote, the representatives from each state must come to a decision on which candidate to support in the House. A state with an equal number of representatives supporting the competing parties would not be able to cast its vote unless one representative agreed to vote for the opposing side.
If a majority is not reached (for president) within the House by January 20 (the day the president and vice president are sworn in), the elected vice president serves as acting president until the House is able to make a decision. If the vice president has not been elected either, the sitting Speaker of the House serves as acting president until the Congress is able to make a decision. If a president has been selected but no vice president has been selected by January 20, the president then appoints the vice president, pending approval by Congress.
There have been only two amendments to the constitution involving the Electoral College. The Twelfth (12th) fixes a dangerous flaw, while the Twenty-third (23rd) gives this District of Columbia voting rights.
The Twelfth Amendment
After the 1800 Presidential Election, the 12th Amendment was adopted to fix a flaw in the Constitution that had allowed Thomas Jefferson to tie in the Electoral College with his vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr. The election was then sent to the House of Representatives, which required 36 ballots to finally elect Jefferson president.
The 12th Amendment specifies that electors shall cast distinct votes for the president and vice president, rather than electoral votes for two men.
The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;
The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;
The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.
The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.
The Twenty-Third Amendment
This amendment gives Washington, D.C. representation in the Electoral College.
Section 1. The District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:
A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, but in no event more than the least populous state; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the states, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a state; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The apportionment of electoral votes is based on the congressional representation for each state, meaning that each congressional seat equals an electoral vote. Since the House of Representatives is set at 435 seats and the Senate currently has 100 members, changes in electoral votes with every 10-year census are often very minute. Therefore, the number of people per electoral vote in one state is very different than the number of people per electoral vote in another.
Below is a list of states along with their populations, number of electoral votes, and a percentage that demonstrates the relative value of a vote cast in that state compared to the national average For example, on average a state is awarded one electoral vote for every 565,166 people. However, Wyoming has three electoral votes and only 532,668 citizens (as of 2008 estimates). As a result each of Wyoming's three electoral votes corresponds to 177,556 people. These people have 3.18 times as much clout in the Electoral College as an average American, or 318% (as listed in the pdf chart, downloadable below).
2008 Population vs. Electors, State-by-State information (pdf, 60.5kb)
Many observers believe the Electoral College introduces complications and potential problems into our political system. These concerns include some of the following:
Grossly unequal distribution of campaign resources
See our 2008 Election Recap.
Unequal voting power depending on where you live
The Electoral College gives disproportionate voting power to states, favoring the smaller states with more electoral votes per person.
For instance, each individual vote in Wyoming counts nearly four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual vote in Texas. This is because Wyoming has three (3) electoral votes for a population of 532,668 citizens (as of 2008 Census Bureau estimates) and Texas has thirty-two (32) electoral votes for a population of almost 25 million. By dividing the population by electoral votes, we can see that Wyoming has one "elector" for every 177,556 people and Texas has one "elector" for about every 715,499. The difference between these two states of 537,943 is the largest in the Electoral College.
See how your state racks up against the rest on our Population vs. Electoral Vote page.
The small states were given additional power to prevent politicians from only focusing on issues which affect the larger states. The fear was that without this power, politicians would completely ignore small states and only focus on big population centers.
Read this Providence Journal article on how small states control elections.
Ironically, there is a study that concludes that larger states are actually at an advantage in the Electoral College. Because almost all states give all of its electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes within that state, candidates must win whole states in order to win the presidency. Naturally, candidates tend to concentrate resources on the largest payoffs, the states which can provide the greatest number of electoral votes.
For a history of the development of the Electoral College, see William C. Kimberling's essay, A Brief History of the Electoral College. Kimberling was the Deputy Director of the FEC's Office of Election Administration.
Looking at the Numbers: Minority Rules
Just how many people elect the president of the United States? The answer may surprise you.
Consider the 2000 presidential elections. Even though more than 100 million people voted in the election, only a small portion of those votes in fact were decisive. Indeed, the results would have been exactly the same even if nearly 80 million of those voters would have stayed home.
Here's what we mean:
Total number of votes cast nationwide in Presidential elections:
105,396,641 in 2000
131, 338,626 in 2008
Total number of votes cast for the winner in their states won:
26,353,058 in 30 states for George W. Bush
39,908,351 in 29 states (including DC) for Barack Obama
Total number of votes that did not factor in determining the winner of the president in their respective years:
To win the Electoral College in 2000, Bush needed only 21,835,615 votes out of a total of 105,396,641votes.
To win the Electoral College in 2008, Obama needed only 39,908,351 votes out of a total of 131,338,626votes.
Percentage of votes that did not factor in determining the winner in their respective years:
79.28% in 2000
70.39% in 2008
The winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes
The Electoral College favors the smaller states with disproportionate voting power. Advocates of the system say that this uneven power forces politicians to pay attention to smaller states, which would otherwise be ignored.
Despite its intentions, the Electoral College does not encourage politicians to campaign in every state.
Some states are still excluded from the campaign; these are not necessarily the small states, but rather they are states that are not viewed as competitive.
Since all but two states allocate their votes via a winner-take-all method, there is no reason for a candidate to campaign in a state that clearly favors one candidate. As an example, Democratic candidates have little incentive to spend time in solidly Republican states, like Texas, even if many Democrats live there. Conversely, Republican candidates have little incentive to campaign in solidly Democratic states, like Massachusetts, especially when they know that states like Florida and Michigan are toss-ups.
The winner-take-all rule also leads to lower voter turnout in states where one party is dominant, because each individual vote will be overwhelmed by the majority and will not, in effect, "count" if the winner takes all the electoral votes.
There is no federal law that requires electors to vote as they have pledged, but 29 states and the District of Columbia have legal control over how their electors vote in the Electoral College. This means their electors are bound by state law and/or by state or party pledge to cast their vote for the candidate that wins the statewide popular vote. At the same time, this also means that there are 21 states in the union that have no requirements of, or legal control over, their electors. Therefore, despite the outcome of a state’s popular vote, the state’s electors are ultimately free to vote in whatever manner they please, including an abstention, with no legal repercussions. Even in the states that do have control, often the punishment or repercussion is slim or nothing (some states issue only minimal fines as punishment), although some states instigate criminal charges ranging from a simple misdemeanor to a fourth degree felony. The states with legal control over their electors are the following 29 and D.C.:
Alabama (Code of Ala. §17-19-2)
Alaska (Alaska Stat. §15.30.090)
California (Election Code §6906)
Colorado (CRS §1-4-304)
Connecticut (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-176)
Delaware (15 Del C §4303)
District of Columbia (§1-1312(g))
Florida (Fla. Stat. §103.021(1))
Hawaii (HRS §14-28)
Maine (21-A MRS §805)
Maryland (Md Ann Code art 33, §8-505)
Massachusetts (MGL, ch. 53, §8)
Michigan (MCL §168.47)
Mississippi (Miss Code Ann §23-15-785)
Montana (MCA §13-25-104)
Nevada (NRS §298.050)
New Mexico (NM Stat Ann §1-15-9)
North Carolina (NC Gen Stat §163-212)
Ohio (ORC §248.355)
South Carolina (SC Code Ann §7-19-80)
Tennessee (Tenn Code Ann §2-15-104(c))
Utah (Utah Code Ann §20A-13-304)
Vermont (17 VSA §2732)
Washington (RCW §29.71.020)
Wisconsin (Wis Stat §7.75)
Wyoming (Wyo Stat §22-19-108)
Most of these state laws generally assert that an elector shall cast his or her vote for the candidates who won a majority of the state's popular vote or for the candidate of the party that nominated the elector.
Over the years, however, despite legal oversight, a number of electors have violated their state's law binding them to their pledged vote. However, these violators often only face being charged with a misdemeanor or a small fine, usually $1,000. Many constitutional scholars agree that electors remain free agents despite state laws and that, if challenged, such laws would be ruled unconstitutional. Therefore, electors can decline to cast their vote for a specific candidate (the one that wins the popular vote of their state), either voting for an alternative candidate, or abstaining completely. In fact, in the 2000 election, Barbara Lett-Simmons, an elector for the District of Columbia, cast a blank ballot for president and vice president in protest of the District's unfair voting rights.
Indeed, when it comes down to it, electors are ultimately free to vote for whom they personally prefer, despite the general public's desire.
See our list of "Faithless Electors" through history.
This inconsistency allows for discrepancies in our electoral system. The electors from nearly half of the states can vote however they wish, regardless of the popular will of the state.
In the founding of our nation, the Electoral College was established to prevent the people from making "uneducated" decisions. The founders feared uneducated public opinion and designed the Electoral College as a layer of insulation from the direct voice of the masses.
There is no reason, in this modern day, to assign this responsibility to a set of individual electors. Hundreds of thousands of votes can and have been violated by an individual elector, choosing to act on his or her own behalf instead of the behalf of the people.
As of the 2008 election, since the founding of the Electoral College, 157 electors have not cast their votes for the candidates who they were designated to represent.
House of Representatives can choose the president
If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the presidential vote is deferred to the House of Representatives and the vice presidential vote is deferred to the Senate. This could easily lead to a purely partisan battle, instead of an attempt to discover which candidate the citizens really prefer.
If the Senate and the House of Representatives reflect different majorities, meaning that they select members of opposing parties, the offices of president and vice president could be greatly damaged. This potential opposition in the presidential office would not be good for the stability of the country or the government.
Enforcement of a two-party system
Because of our two-party system, voters often find themselves voting for the "lesser of two evils," rather than a candidate they really feel would do the best job. The Electoral College inadvertently reinforces this two party system, where third parties cannot enter the race without being tagged as "spoilers."
Since most states distribute their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, the smaller party has no chance to gain support without seeming to take this support from one of the major parties. Few people will support a party that never wins, especially when they are supporting that party at the possible expense of their least favorite candidate taking power (as happened to Nader/Gore supporters in 2000 and Perot/Bush supporters in 1992).
Presidency can be won without a majority of the popular vote
As the 2000 election demonstrated, it is possible for a president to be elected without winning the popular vote. Nor was the Bush/Gore election the first time a presidential candidate has won the presidency while someone else claimed a plurality of the votes cast. Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in 1824 and 1876 respectively, only to see someone else walk into the White House.
As an even more common occurrence is for a presidential candidate to win both the presidency and the popular vote without actually winning a majority of all ballots cast. This has happened 16 times since the founding of the Electoral College, most recently in 2000. In every one of the elections, more than half of the voters voted against the candidate who was elected.
With such a winner-take-all system, it is impossible to tell which candidate the people really prefer, especially in a close race.
The following is a list of some of the more controversial US presidential elections:
1800: Thomas Jefferson v. John Adams
In the 1800 presidential election, the Democratic-Republicans ran Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr on their ballot. Jefferson and Burr won a clear majority of the national vote. All 73 Democratic-Republican members of the Electoral College voted faithfully, casting two votes each, one for Jefferson and one for Burr.
Before the 12th Amendment, electors cast two votes for their party without specifying one as being for the president and the other for the vice president. Because of this, Jefferson and Burr received exactly the same number of electoral votes and the election was a tie.
Since there was no majority within the Electoral College, the decision was deferred to the House of Representatives, then controlled by the Federalist Party. Though Jefferson was clearly the Democratic-Republican's candidate for president, the Federalist Party considered Burr to be less of an evil than Jefferson. They tried to rally support for Burr in place of Jefferson. Burr also refused to endorse Jefferson.
The House had difficulty coming to a majority and cast 36 separate votes within one week. Though the original election was in November, the final House vote, electing Jefferson as president, did not occur until February 7, 1800. Aaron Burr was appointed as vice president.
This election prompted the passing of the 12th Amendment which introduced double balloting. The Electoral College now casts two separate votes, one for president and one for vice president.
1824: John Quincy Adams v. Andrew Jackson
This was the first election in which the winner of the popular vote did not become the president.
Andrew Jackson won a slight plurality in the popular vote, leading John Quincy Adams by 38,149 votes. Four candidates received electoral votes, though none received enough to constitute a majority:
Andrew Jackson received 99 electoral votes.
John Quincy Adams received 84 electoral votes.
William H. Crawford received 41 electoral votes.
Henry Clay received 37 electoral votes.
Since there was no majority within the Electoral College, the decision was deferred to the House of Representatives. The House is only allowed to vote on the top three contenders from the Electoral College so Henry Clay was removed from the election.
Adams, who was Jackson's most viable competition, sought Clay's support, knowing it would bring him victory. As the vote neared, Clay worked hard rounding up support for Adams. He won over western representatives whose states had voted solidly for Jackson and even promised the votes of his home state Kentucky, which had not cast a single popular vote for Adams. After more than a month of bargaining, John Quincy Adams took precisely the 13 states he needed to win, Jackson won seven, and Crawford won four.
When Adams became president, he appointed Henry Clay as secretary of state. Many have suspected that the promise of the position was why Clay agreed to support Adams.
Jackson called the whole situation a "corrupt bargain" and spent the next four years campaigning on how the election was stolen from him.
Though Jackson did win the popular vote in 1824, not all states recorded a popular vote. In six of the 24 existing states, the Electoral College members were appointed by the state legislature. These six states (NY, SC, GA, VT, LA, DE) comprised nearly 25% of the electorate.
The number of voters for each electoral vote also varied considerably. There were more voters in Indiana, which carried 5 electoral votes, than there were in Virginia, which carried 24 electoral votes. More than three times as many people voted in Ohio than in Virginia, yet Ohio only cast 16 electoral votes.
Some states were won with very high percentages; Jackson carried 98% of Tennessee's popular vote, Adams carried 94% of New Hampshire's vote. Neither candidate had national appeal and both were absent on the ballot in at least one state.
Despite these variations in representation, Jackson's 4-year campaign highlighting the unfairness was successful. He won the presidency in 1828, presenting himself as a man of the people, not the government.
1836: Martin Van Buren v. Richard Johnson
In the 1836 election, the Democratic-Republicans' presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, won both the popular vote and the electoral vote.
His main competition was the Whig Party. The Whigs hoped to expose the design of the Electoral College by running several different candidates in different areas, picking individuals with a great deal of regional appeal.
The Whigs hoped to win a party majority throughout the country with this method, which would then allow them to choose the individual they wished to become president.
They were unsuccessful and Van Buren won the election with nearly 60% of the electoral votes, though his popular vote total was just over 50%. His running mate, Richard M. Johnson, did not fare so well. Upon hearing the allegation that Johnson had children with an African American woman, the 23 Democratic-Republican electors of Virginia refused to give him their votes.
Without those 23 votes, Johnson did not receive a majority vote within the Electoral College. The decision was deferred to the Senate where Johnson was finally elected by a majority vote as the new vice president.
1872: Horace Greeley v. Ulysses S Grant
Horace Greeley established the Liberal Republicans (or Democrats) in protest of incumbent Ulysses S Grant. Greeley ran against Grant in the 1872 presidential election.
Though few took Greeley seriously at first, he gained support throughout the campaign and eventually gathered 40% of the popular vote, only 800,000 less than Grant.
Greeley received a total of 2.8 million votes and would have received 86 electoral votes had he not died on November 29, after the general election but before the Electoral College convened to cast their votes.
With no precedent to guide them, Greeley's electors split the 84 votes among four minor candidates. Grant had already won an absolute majority of the electoral votes so the result of the election was not affected. However, history was slightly skewed because Grant is credited with defeating Greeley, 286-0.
1876: Samuel Tilden v. Rutherford B. Hayes
One of the most controversial presidential elections was between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote by nearly 250,000 votes, over 3%. On the night of the election, both candidates, as well as most of the national media, assumed Tilden was the winner. However, some Republicans were not willing to give up so easily.
The candidate's electoral votes were close and the Republicans contested 20 of them, including 4 from Florida, 8 from Louisiana, 7 from South Carolina, and 1 from Oregon.
Out of these 20 electoral votes, Tilden only needed 1 to win the election. Hayes needed all 20.
Without any precedent for the many contested electoral votes, both parties agreed to set up a 15-person commission to study the contested votes and to impartially decide whom each vote should go to.
The commission was made up of five senators, five members of Congress, and five Supreme Court Justices. It was originally set up to include seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent who was expected to be unbiased and nonpartisan.
At this time, the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House. Both parties agreed that the findings of the commission would be upheld unless overruled by both the House and the Senate.
When the independent who was supposed to serve on the commission was elected as a senator, he resigned his position on the commission and was replaced by a Republican. The commission now had eight Republicans and seven Democrats.
Over a series of discussions, the commission voted along party lines and awarded all 20 votes to Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate. Each vote was 8-7, with the Republican majority controlling the decision. Every decision of the commission was contested by the Democratic House but was upheld by the Republican Senate.
The Democrats threatened to filibuster but eventually agreed to a resolution that Hayes would withdraw federal troops from the South, ending reconstruction and the enforcement of equal voting rights for blacks.
This election was clearly corrupted and has found a place in every debate over the Electoral College since.
For a more complete analysis and timeline of the 1876 election, see the special website designed by Harper's Weekly.
1888: Benjamin Harrison v. Grover Cleveland
1888 was another election in which the winner of the popular vote did not become president.
Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland had won the popular vote by a margin of 0.8% (90,596 out of 11,383,320 votes). Despite this slim popular victory, Republican Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College majority (233 out of 401 votes).
Harrison won the Electoral College without the popular vote by winning slim majorities in his winning states and suffering considerable losses in his losing states. Six southern states favored Cleveland by more than 65%.
The reason for this split was the issue of tariffs. The South strongly favored lowering of the tariff. The Republicans approved of high tariffs and were unpopular in the South. Tariff reform gave Cleveland immense support in the southern states, but the South alone was not enough to win the election.
When elected in 1884, Cleveland was the first Democrat elected since before the Civil War. He came back to challenge and defeat Harrison in 1892.
2000: Al Gore v. George W. Bush
The 2000 Presidential Election was the most recent election where the popular vote winner was not elected. George W. Bush, son of former President George H.W. Bush, ran on the Republican ticket against Democratic candidate, and the sitting Vice President Al Gore.
Though Gore held a slim popular vote victory of 543,895 (0.5%), Bush won the Electoral College 271-266, with one Gore elector abstaining.
The election was plagued with allegations of voter fraud and disenfranchisement. Rumors of illegal road blocks, unclear ballots, and uncounted votes, particularly in swing states like Missouri and Florida, were rampant.
Florida became the key state as the election drew to a close. Consisting of nearly 6 million voters, Florida was officially won by a margin of 537 votes, after a process of recounting the votes and a Supreme Court ruling.
Voters complained about confusing ballots and many Florida voters believed that they accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan, a conservative running on the Reform ticket, when they meant to vote for Al Gore.
Another significant candidate in the 2000 election was Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Nader attracted just under 3% of voters with a progressive platform focused on social and environmental issues.
Democratic supporters targeted Nader as being a "spoiler" for Al Gore. Since Nader was left-of-center, Democrats argued that most of his voters would have otherwise supported Gore. In such a close election, many believe that Gore would have won if Nader had dropped out of the race.
The 2000 election resulted in numerous court battles over contested ballots and recounts. These lawsuits escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court where the final, 5-4 decision was made, ending the recounts and giving the state of Florida's electoral votes to George W. Bush.
In the end, Gore conceded the election publicly, though he did not hide his displeasure at the Supreme Court's ruling.
"Faithless Electors" are members of the Electoral College who, for whatever reason, do not vote for their party's designated candidate.
Since the founding of the Electoral College, there have been 157 faithless electors. 71 of these votes were changed because the original candidate died before the day on which the Electoral College cast its votes. Three of the votes were not cast at all as three electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The other 82 electoral votes were changed on the personal initiative of the elector.
Sometimes electors change their votes in large groups, such as when 23 Virginia electors acted together in 1836. Many times, however, these electors stood alone in their decisions. As of the 2004 election, no elector has changed the outcome of an election by voting against his or her party’s designated candidate.
Despite these 157 faithless votes, and a Supreme Court ruling allowing states to empower political parties to require formal pledges from presidential electors (Ray v. Blair, 343 US 214), 21 states still do not require their members of the Electoral College to vote for their party's designated candidate.
There are 29 states (plus the District of Columbia) that require faithfulness issue a small variety of rarely enforced punishments for faithless electors, including fines and misdemeanors.
Here are the names, dates, and stories of the 156 faithless votes:
2004 - Anonymous (Democrat, Minnesota)
An unknown elector from Minnesota, pledged to vote for Democrat John Kerry, cast a presidential vote instead for Kerry’s running mate John Edwards (the elector also cast his or her vice presidential vote for Edwards). One Minnesota elector, who believed the Edwards vote must have been a mistake, said, "I'm certainly glad the Electoral College isn't separated by one vote."
2000 - Barbara Lett-Simmons (Democrat, District of Columbia)
Barbara Lett-Simmons, a Democratic elector from the District of Columbia, did not cast her vote in order to protest the lack of congressional representation for Washington, DC. Lett-Simmons was the first elector to abstain from voting since 1832. Her abstention did not affect the outcome of the election.
1988 - Margaret Leach (Democrat, West Virginia)
Margaret Leach, a nurse from Huntington, WV, was pledged to the Democratic Party. During the Electoral College process, Leach learned that members of the Electoral College were not required to vote for the candidates to whom they were pledged, whereupon she decided to draw more attention to the situation by switching her votes for president and vice president. She cast her presidential vote for Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, and cast her vice presidential vote for Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate.
Leach tried to get other electors to join her, but hers remained the only unexpected vote.
1976 - Mike Padden (Republican, Washington)
Mike Padden, a lawyer from Spokane, WA, was pledged to vote for Gerald Ford, the 1976 Republican candidate for president. Instead Padden voted for Ronald Reagan, who had run in the Republican primary and lost. For vice president he voted for Robert Dole, Gerald Ford's running mate.
1972 - Roger L. MacBride (Republican, Virginia)
Roger L. MacBride was pledged to the Republican party of Virginia. However, in the 1972 election, MacBride did not cast his electoral vote for Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate, but for John Hospers, the Libertarian presidential candidate.
He also cast his vice presidential vote for Toni Nathan, the Libertarian vice presidential candidate, (making Nathan the first woman to receive an electoral vote). MacBride ran as the Libertarian candidate for president in the next election but did not receive any electoral votes.
1968 - Dr. Lloyd W. Bailey (Republican, North Carolina)
Dr. Lloyd W. Bailey was an elector for the Republican Party of North Carolina. He did not vote for Richard Nixon however, but for George Wallace, the presidential candidate for the American Independence Party. (Wallace received a total of 46 electoral votes).
Bailey claimed that Nixon had done some things that displeased him (like appointing Henry Kissinger and Daniel Moynihan) and so he decided not to vote for him. He also protested that he had never signed a pledge promising to vote for any particular candidate and that his vote for Wallace was justified because Wallace was the winner in Bailey’s district.
Bailey later admitted at a Senate hearing that he would have voted for Richard Nixon if his vote would have altered the outcome of the election.
1960 - Henry D. Irwin (Republican, Oklahoma)
Henry D. Irwin, a Republican elector from Oklahoma, was originally pledged to Richard Nixon. Irwin later admitted in an interview with CBS that he "could not stomach" Nixon. He tried to convince the Democratic and Republican electors to reject both Kennedy and Nixon as presidential candidates. His choice replacement was a combination of two conservative senators: Harry F. Byrd of Virginia and Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In fact, he sent out telegrams to the other electors.
One telegram sent to the 218 Republican electors read:
"I am Oklahoma Republican elector. The Republican electors cannot deny the election to Kennedy. Sufficient conservative Democratic electors available to deny labor Socialist nominee. Would you consider Byrd President, Goldwater Vice President, or wire any acceptable substitute. All replies strict confidence."
Irwin received several replies (about 40) from other electors but he was the only one to vote against his designated party. He cast his electoral votes for Byrd and Goldwater.
In the same election 14 unpledged electors (eight from Mississippi and six from Alabama) cast their presidential votes for Harry Byrd. All 14 also voted for Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as vice president.
1956 - W. F. Turner (Democrat, Alabama)
W.F. Turner, a Democratic elector from Alabama, voted for Walter Burgwyn Jones instead of the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. Jones was formerly a circuit court judge from Turner’s hometown.
1948 - Preston Parks (Democrat, Tennessee)
Preston Parks was a member of Tennessee’s Democratic Party. He was appointed as one of their state electors early in the election year. Before the election, members of the Democratic Party split off and formed the States Rights party.
Parks vowed before the election to vote for Senator Strom Thurmond, the States Rights Party candidate instead of Harry Truman. Another elector also made the same pledge but ended up voting for Truman.
Thurmond, who gathered less than 3% of the popular vote, received a total of 39 electoral votes. These votes came from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
1912 - Eight Republican Electors
In 1912, Republican Vice Presidential candidate James S. Sherman died before the election. He was President William Howard Taft's vice president and they were both running for re-election.
Eight Republican electors had pledged their votes to him but voted for Nicholas Murray Butler instead.
1896 - Four People's Party Electors
In 1896, two parties, the Democratic Party and the People’s Party, ran William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate. The two parties, though they shared a presidential candidate, nominated different candidates for vice president. The Democratic Party nominated Arthur Sewall and the People’s Party nominated Thomas 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.
1872 - Sixty-three Democratic Electors
The Democratic Party nominated Horace Greeley for President in 1872. However, Greeley died after the November election but before the Electoral College had cast their votes. 63 of the 66 Democratic Electors refused to give their votes to a deceased candidate. 17 of these 63 Electors abstained from voting. The other 43 Electors split their votes among three other Democratic candidates.
1836 - Twenty-three Democratic Electors
The Democratic Party nominated Richard M. 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.
With these 23 votes missing, there was no majority in the Electoral College and the decision was deferred to the Senate. In the end, the Senate voted for Johnson as the vice president.
1832 - Thirty-two Democratic Electors (Pennsylvania, Maryland)
Two National Republican Party electors from the state of Maryland refused to vote for presidential candidate Henry Clay, not voting against Clay but abstaining completely.
In the same year, all 30 electors from Pennsylvania refused to support the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, voting instead for William Wilkins.
Despite the loss of the 30 votes from Pennsylvania, Martin Van Buren was elected as the vice president. Andrew Jackson was elected as the president, receiving over 75% of the electoral votes.
1828 - Seven Democratic Electors (Georgia)
In this election, seven out of the nine electors from Georgia refused to vote for vice presidential candidate John Calhoun. All seven cast their vice presidential votes for William Smith instead. Andrew Jackson won his re-election, with John Calhoun as his vice president.
1820 - William Plummer, Sr. (Democratic-Republican, New Hampshire)
William Plummer, Sr. was pledged to vote for Democratic-Republican candidate James Monroe. Instead, he cast his vote for John Quincy Adams, also of the Democratic-Republican Party, although Adams was not a candidate in the 1820 election.
Supposedly, Plummer did not feel that the Electoral College should unanimously elect any president other than George Washington.
Other than three electors who did not cast votes, Plummer’s vote for Adams was the only vote not cast for Monroe.
1812 - Three Federalist Electors
Three electors of the Federalist Party refused to cast their votes for Federalist vice presidential candidate Jared Ingersoll. All three voted instead for Elbridge Gerry, the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic-Republican Party.
1808 - Six Democratic-Republican Electors
Six electors from the Democratic-Republican Party refused to support James Madison, their party’s candidate for president. Instead, all three voted for George Clinton, the Democratic-Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate, for president.
1796 - Samuel Miles (Federalist, Pennsylvania)
Samuel Miles, of Pennsylvania, was the first elector to break a pledge to vote for a specific candidate. Miles had promised to vote for Federalist candidate John Adams, but instead cast a ballot for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.
While Miles did not affect the outcome of the election—Jefferson still lost by three electoral votes—his decision still earns him a dubious spot in the history votes, and the ire of many Pennsylvanians as the following letter, published in the Gazette of the United States, attests: "What, do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be president? No! I choose him to act, not to think."
Maine & Nebraska
Maine and Nebraska both use an alternative method of distributing their electoral votes, called the Congressional District Method. Currently, these two states are the only two in the union that diverge from the traditional winner-take-all method of electoral vote allocation.
Since electors are awarded to each state based on the number of House seats plus the number of Senate seats (always two), the congressional district method allocated one electoral vote to each congressional district. The winner of each district is awarded one electoral vote, and the winner of the state-wide vote is then awarded the state's remaining two electoral votes.
This method has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996, though since both states have adopted this modification, the statewide winners had consistently swept all of the state's districts, up until the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain. Nebraska gave four of it's electoral votes to Senator McCain, but Senator Obama won a single electoral vote from Nebraska's 2nd congressional district.
Although this method still fails to reach the full ideal of one-person one-vote, it has been proposed as a nationwide reform for the way in which electoral votes are distributed.
Maine Senator John Martin, author of the state's congressional district plan in 1969, endorses the National Popular Vote plan.
See our section on Solutions and the Case for Reform for more information.
Past Attempts at Reform
The rules of the Electoral College are not set in stone. While Constitutional amendments are rare, they do happen. Twenty-seven proposals have survived the difficult amendment process, and with much less popular approval than the movement for direct election. Over the history of our country, there have been at least 700 proposed amendments to modify or abolish the Electoral College - more than any other subject of Constitutional reform.
Here are just a few examples of past reform attempts:
1950: The Lodge-Gossett Amendment, named for its co-sponsors Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA) and Rep. Ed Gossett (D-TX), was a classic example of a reform plan known as proportional allocation. The plan was introduced in the 81st Congress (1949-1950) as an amendment proposal that would abolish the Electoral College as it was known, replacing it with a proportional electoral vote.
In this case, electors and the college would remain in place, but electoral votes would be allocated to presidential tickets in a manner directly proportional to the popular votes each ticket received in the states. The proposal was amended in the Senate to also require a 40% threshold of electoral votes for a ticket to be elected to the Presidency and Vice Presidency. If no one received such a threshold, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in a joint session, would then choose among the top two presidential candidates and their running mates.
The Lodge-Gossett Amendment passed the Senate with a super majority by a vote of 64-27, but died a bitter death in the House.
1956: Hubert Humphrey's (D-MN) S. J. 152 was a new, unique proposal of reform introduced in the 84th Congress. In this plan, the Electoral College would be abolished as known, but the then 531 electoral votes would still be put to use. Two electoral votes would be awarded to the candidate winning the overall popular vote in each of the then 48 states. The remaining 435 would then be divided nationally in proportion to the nationwide popular vote. The proposal passed the House of Representatives, but later died in the Senate.
1966: Delaware filed a lawsuit against New York, arguing that its "winner-take-all" system for awarding electoral college votes effectively disenfranchised small states in the presidential election process. The Supreme Court, under whose original jurisdiction the case was filed, refused to hear it. However, Delaware's action generated support from several other states and 11 more joined in the lawsuit: Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
See these documents from the case:
1969: This proposal came to be after the 1968 Presidential election, in which American Independent candidate George Wallace managed to obtain 46 electoral votes, generating concern over the possibilities of contingent elections and electoral vote-trading for political concessions. In the 91st Congress, Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-NY) introduced the proposal, which would abolish the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular election with a 40% threshold and a runoff if no threshold was achieved. The bill was wildly popular in the House, passing 338-70, yet failed to pass in the Senate due to a filibuster.
1979: After the close election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN) introduced a proposal in the 96th Congress to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with direct election. The measure failed the Senate by a vote of 51-48 in 1979. Because of its failure in that chamber, the House decided not to vote on its version of the proposal.
See floor speech from Kansas Senator, Bob Dole from January 1979.
1992 & 1997: Hearings were conducted to consider reform possibilities, but no proposal left the committee chamber.
2004: Colorado proposes, by ballot measure 36, to amend the way it allocates its electoral votes. Instead of remaining a winner-take-all state, the proposal, if passed, would have changed the state to proportional allocation.
See related editorials on the Colorado attempt:
2004: Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) introduces a proposal for Electoral College reform. HJR 109 proposes a majority direct election of president, and is currently residing in the House Judiciary Committee.
*Only two proposals involving the Electoral College have ever reached the ratification stage, and both passed (the 12th and 23rd Amendments).