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When a presidential candidate wins a state in the presidential election, it means that electors chosen by their political party will vote for president and vice president. Overwhelmingly, these electors have faithfully voted for their party’s presidential nominee. However, occasionally they do not. Electors who cast a vote for someone other than their party’s nominee are often called “faithless electors.”
Faithless electors have never changed the outcome of a presidential election. To date, only one elector has cast a vote for the opposite party’s nominee instead of his own in a close contest. In the 1796 election - the very first contested presidential election - Samuel Miles, a Federalist elector from Pennsylvania, voted for Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson instead of Federalist candidate John Adams.
Altogether, there have been 23,507 electoral votes counted across 58 presidential elections. Only 90 electors have cast “deviant” votes, not ordinary votes for the presidential nominee of the elector’s political party. Only one elector has ever voted for their nominee’s opponent. More than two-thirds of deviant votes (63) were votes cast for another candidate due to the death of the nominee. Of the remaining 27 deviant votes, 24 were cast for another candidate, 3 of which were cancelled or retracted due to the operation of state law; and only one cast for the opposite party’s nominee in a close election. The final three deviant votes consist of one abstention, one abnormal vote (switching the presidential and vice presidential nominees) and one apparent accident.
There have also been 75 incidents of electors casting faithful votes for president but casting some sort of deviant vote for vice president. No such incident has ever actually changed the outcome for vice president. These are described more fully below. Many, but not all, of the electors who cast deviant votes for president also cast deviant votes for vice president. Combining these shows that a total of 165 electors have cast deviant votes of some sort (for either president or vice president or both).
We have also identified a few instances of electors failing to vote due to illness, but these are not intentional abstentions, and they would be substituted with replacement electors under modern elections, so they are not included in the totals at all, though they are mentioned in the narratives below where the records are sufficiently clear.
Some states have passed legislation requiring electors to pledge to vote for their party’s nominee. Such legislation was upheld by the Supreme Court in Chiafalo v. Washington, which held that states may require pledges and penalize deviant votes, including by canceling deviant votes entirely.
Here are the names, dates, and stories of the 90 deviant votes for president and the 75 deviant votes for vice president:
Although it did not impact the outcome, the 2016 election between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton included an abnormally high number of electors breaking with their political party and casting a deviant vote for President. The Democratic electors were David Bright (ME - Bernie Sanders), Muhammad Abdurrahman (MN - Bernie Sanders), Micheal Baca (CO - John Kasich), Esther John (WA - Colin Powell), Levi Guerra (WA - Colin Powell), Bret Chiafalo (WA - Colin Powell), Robert Satiacum (WA - Faith Spotted Eagle), and David Mulinix (HI - Bernie Sanders). The two Republican electors were Chris Suprun (TX - John Kasich) and Bill Greene (TX - Ron Paul). Additionally, one Texas Republican elector, Art Sisneros, withdrew after Election Day but prior to the vote of the electors and was replaced. Seven of these electors also voted for a different candidate for vice president than their party’s nominee.
The two electors from Minnesota and Colorado were replaced following their deviant votes, so their votes were not reported in the final count. The elector from Maine was ruled out of order and switched his vote back to Clinton/Kaine, so his original deviant vote was also not reported in the final count. A total of 7 votes were counted for candidates other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, so rather than the expected outcome of Trump 306 to Clinton 232, the final tally was Trump 304, Clinton 227, Others 7.
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."
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.
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 deviant vote.
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.
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.
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.
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. These were not faithless electors, though, as they had been elected as unpledged electors and were free to vote as they chose.
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. He also voted for U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge for Vice President instead of Stevenson’s running mate, Estes Kefauver.
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 stated before the election that he would not vote for Harry Truman, his party’s nominee, but would instead vote for Senator Strom Thurmond, the States Rights Party candidate. Another elector also made the same pledge but ended up voting for Truman. Parks also voted for Thurmond’s running mate, Fielding L. Wright, for Vice President.
Thurmond, who gathered less than 3% of the popular vote, received a total of 39 electoral votes. The other 38 electors were not faithless electors, but were earned by virtue of Thurmond winning Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
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 voted for Nicholas Murray Butler instead. There were no deviant votes cast for president in 1912.
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. All 31 voted for Bryan for president, but four voted for the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sewall, for vice president.
The Democratic Party nominated Horace Greeley for President in 1872. He won enough states to earn 66 electors. However, Greeley died after the November election but before the Electoral College had cast their votes. Only 3 of his electors voted for him, and Congress did not count those three votes. Of the remaining 63, 42 voted for Independent-Democrat Thomas Hendricks, 18 voted for Greeley's running mate, B. Gratz Brown, two voted for Democrat Charles Jenkins, and one voted for Democrat David Davis. Because they did not vote for their party’s nominee, their votes are considered deviant votes, but they are not faithless electors, because voting for their nominee was not meaningful an option.
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.
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.
Additionally, two National Republican electors did not vote due to illness.
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 the election, with John Calhoun as his vice president.
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.
The election of 1820 was the last uncontested election for President in United States history, and Plummer did not feel that the Electoral College should unanimously elect any president other than George Washington. Plummer’s vote for Adams was the only vote not cast for Monroe.
In 1820, there was also a dispute as to the validity of Missouri's three electoral votes, due to an underlying dispute regarding when Missouri achieved full statehood, leading to inconsistent reports as to the total number of electoral votes cast. However, the Missouri votes were not faithless 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.
Six electors from the Democratic-Republican Party refused to support James Madison, their party’s candidate for president. Instead, they voted for George Clinton, the Democratic-Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate, for president.
Additionally, one Democratic-Republican elector from Kentucky failed to vote at all, because he was sick.
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 history. A letter, published in the Gazette of the United States, expressed the attitude toward faithless electors that would persist as the dominant viewpoint: "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."