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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).
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, in 2008, 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. Understood in one way, 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)
This is just one way of looking at the Electoral College and the way voters are represented in presidential elections, however. A better way of measuring a voter's clout in a presidential election is simply whether or not they live in a swing state. Those voters that live in "spectator states" essentially have no clout, as candidates know that the outcomes in those states are already decided. There is very little incentive to campaign in those states or respond to the needs of those voters.
National Popular Vote provides analysis of this spectator status for most voters by highlighting the fact that most of the 2016 presidential campaign took place in just 4 states. Rob Richie and Andrea Levien of FairVote documented this inequality in the 2012 presidential campaign in a Presidential Studies Quarterly article in 2013 as well.
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 167 faithless electors. 71 of these votes were changed because the original candidate died before the day on which the Electoral College cast its votes. 29 electors chose to abstain or cast an abnormal vote (for example, switch the president and vice presidential candidates) rather than vote for their party's nominee. The other 67 electoral votes represent electors casting their votes for a different candidate on their own initiative.
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 2016 election, no elector has changed the outcome of an election by voting against his or her party’s designated candidate.
Despite these 167 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), 20 states still do not require their members of the Electoral College to vote for their party's designated candidate.
The 30 states (plus the District of Columbia) that require faithfulness issue a small variety of rarely enforced punishments for faithless electors, including fines and misdemeanors, and in some cases cancel the deviant votes and replace the electors.
Here are the names, dates, and stories of the 167 faithless votes:
2016 - Eight Democratic Electors and Two Republican Electors
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), Michael 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. The three electors from Maine, Minnesota, and Colorado were replaced following their deviant votes, so their votes were 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.
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 - Two National Republican Electors (Maryland) and Thirty Democratic Electors (Pennsylvania)
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.
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.
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."
There are 30 states (plus the District of Columbia) that require electors to vote for a pledged candidate. Most of those states (21 plus DC) nonetheless do not provide for any penalty or any mechanism to prevent the deviant vote from counting as cast. Five states provide a penalty of some sort for a deviant vote, and six states provide for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced (two states do both).
The Uniform Law Commission has drafted and recommended a law called the Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act that provides for electors to pledge to vote for a candidate, and for them to be replaced with an alternate in the event that they do not vote as pledged. As of April 2018, that Act has been adopted by Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, and Nevada. Thanks to Nathan Wilson of Westminster College for catching and correcting some few errors on this page.
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 have swept all of the state's districts in every election except 2008 and 2016. In 2008, Nebraska gave four of its electoral votes to John McCain, but Barack Obama won a single electoral vote from Nebraska's 2nd congressional district. In 2016, Maine gave three of its electoral votes to Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump won a single electoral vote in Maine's 2nd congressional district.
Some have argued for expanding this system to address the problems inherent in the use of the winner-take-all electoral college method. However, if expanded to all 50 states, the Congressional District Method would make the presidential election even less competitive, and it would increase the likelihood of a candidate winning the election without winning a majority of the national popular vote. We analyze the system, along with the "whole number proportional" system in our 2015 report, Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral Votes.
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).