From The Mailbag: Don’t Hold Your Breath On Electoral College Mutiny

Q:  How often do electoral college voters NOT vote for the winner from their state? Is this common or unusual? — Robyn Davis Sekula, New Albany, Ind.

A:  It happens every so often, but never has it changed the outcome of the race.  Donald Trump, according to the election returns of Nov. 8th, won 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232.  Thus, for Trump to be denied the presidency, 37 of his electors would have to defect to another candidate.  And then the race would be thrown into the House of Representatives (one needs 270 EVs to become president).

That is not likely to happen, especially if you take a look at the number of so-called “faithless electors” since 1900.  True, 2016 is a different kind of animal, and yes, there has never been a concerted effort to get electors to switch as we’ve seen this year.  Check out this commercial:

Of course, the thought of liberal stalwarts like Martin Sheen trying to convince Republican electors to bolt from Trump seems a bit unimaginable.  (Having said that, yes, I agree, there have been more unimaginable things that happened this year than we can count.)

There was also this Saturday Night Live routine last week, where a fake “Hillary Clinton” was reprising a scene from “Love Actually” with a visit to a supposed “elector”:

Here’s a list of those electors since 1900 who voted for a presidential candidate other than the one who carried their state; there has yet to be a case where these strayers have altered the outcome of the election:

1948, a Harry Truman (D) elector in Tennessee voted instead for States Rights Democrat Strom Thurmond

1956, an Adlai Stevenson (D) elector in Alabama voted for local circuit court judge Walter Jones

1960, a Richard Nixon (R) elector in Oklahoma voted for Sen. Harry Byrd (D-VA)

1968, a Nixon elector in North Carolina voted for American Independent Party nominee George Wallace

1972, a Nixon elector in Virginia voted for Libertarian Party nominee John Hospers; that elector, Roger MacBride, became the Libertarian presidential nominee four years later

1976, a Gerald Ford (R) elector in Washington voted for former Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA); that elector, Mike Padden, was interviewed on Episode #154 of the Political Junkie podcast

1988, a Michael Dukakis (D) elector in West Virginia voted for Dukakis’ running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX)

2000, an Al Gore (D) elector in Washington, D.C., cast no vote in protest of the District’s lack of statehood; and

2004, a John Kerry (D) elector in Minnesota voted for Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-NC); in fact, the anonymous elector actually voted for John “Ewards,” possibly by mistake.  Such a misspelling was unpresidented in Electoral College history.

In 2000, had two Electors for Bush — who finished with 271 electoral votes — defected, the race for president would have been thrown into the House of Representatives.  That hasn’t happened since 1825.

Q:  Is there any circumstance under which the government could call for a “do-over” on the presidential election?  Is there any circumstance under which the electors of the electoral college could declare themselves unable to vote for the candidate they are “bound” to vote for? — Mary Benson

This button shows the Electoral Vote totals … before any potential shifts.

A:  Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, had been trying to get Congress to delay the vote in the Electoral College, at least “until an intelligence briefing has been given to each Elector.”  That’s in response to the conclusion by the CIA that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the election.  But federal law mandates that the Electoral College must fulfill its obligations on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.  There is no evidence anywhere to suggest that any significant number of Trump electors would declare themselves “unable to vote” for him (just one Trump elector, from Texas, is leaning in that direction).  I suspect that any effort by the Obama administration calling for a “do over” would be met with fierce resistance from Trump supporters.

Q:  I know that everyone remains bitter in the aftermath of the election, especially Democrats.  But it’s the Republicans here in North Carolina that have taken payback to a new level.  Have you ever seen a situation like it? — Wendy Thomas, Lake Lure, N.C.

A:  I cannot think of a comparable situation to what Republicans have done in North Carolina since the GOP incumbent governor, Pat McCrory, conceded the election after suggesting, without evidence, massive voter fraud.  Republicans in the General Assembly, who have a veto-proof majority, have since pushed through legislation that eroded the powers of the incoming governor, Roy Cooper (D).  They have also drastically cut his staff and changed the rules in which his Cabinet appointments are now subject to approval by the GOP state Senate.  I know lame-duck presidents have in the past made appointments or announced pardons in the aftermath of the election.  And there was the famous instance in Massachusetts, when Sen. John Kerry was running for president, where the Democratic majority in the legislature removed the power of the then-governor, Republican Mitt Romney, to name senators in case of a vacancy … like, if Kerry won.  And then they returned the power to the governor years later, after Sen. Ted Kennedy died and the governor was a Democrat, Deval Patrick.  But that hardly compares to what Republicans have done in North Carolina since the November election.

Q:  What can you tell me about the vote to defeat Sen. Jeff Sessions for a judgeship in 1986?  Are there any members of the Senate who were there in 1986 and who might have to vote for his confirmation as attorney general? — Dennis Palmer, Portland, Ore.

A:  President Reagan’s nomination of Sessions, then a U.S. attorney from Alabama, to be a federal district court judge never got to the full Senate floor; it was defeated in the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee in June of 1986.  Sessions’ hopes were dubious from the start, with reports of controversial race-based statements he allegedly made.  Despite its GOP majority, the Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to defeat the nomination with two Republicans, Charles Mathias of Maryland and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, voting with all eight Democrats.  Then, when committee chair Strom Thurmond (R-SC) suggested sending the nomination to the full Senate without any recommendation, that too was defeated, on a 9-9 vote.  There were four members of the Judiciary Committee who are still in the Senate today: Republicans Charles Grassley (IA), Mitch McConnell (KY) and Orrin Hatch (UT), who voted in favor of Sessions’ nomination, and Democrat Pat Leahy (VT), who voted no.  A key “no” vote was cast by Alabama Democrat Howell Heflin, who originally supported Sessions’ nomination.  Ten years later, when Heflin retired from the Senate, Sessions won the election to succeed him.


Dec. 19 — Electoral College vote.

Jan. 3, 2017 — Swearing in of the 115th Congress.

Jan. 20 — Inauguration of Donald Trump as president.

Jan. 29-30 — Events with WUNC in Pittsboro, N.C.  Check for details.

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This Day In Political History:   For the first time since the contentious presidential election was settled, President-elect George W. Bush meets with Vice President Al Gore at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (Dec. 19, 2000).

1 thought on “From The Mailbag: Don’t Hold Your Breath On Electoral College Mutiny”

  1. Actually, those 6 Alabama electors who voted for Byrd weren’t pledged to JFK; they were unpledged. In those days, the Democrats used a primary to nominate candidates for elector. In 1960, 6 “State’s Righters” and 5 “Loyalists” won the primary. (Gadsden Times, 6/8/1960.)

    All 11 were elected in November. (Incidentally, the names of presidential candidates didn’t appear on the November ballot in Alabama; only the names of the nominees for elector did. So it isn’t quite correct to say that Kennedy “carried” Alabama.) The 6 State’s Righters voted for Byrd and Strom Thurmond; the 5 Loyalists voted for Kennedy and Johnson.


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