The Faithless? The Untold Story of the Electoral College

Dave Gillespie —

Do you think of yourself as something of a political junkie? Are you interested in, or concerned about, problems like partisan polarization and the future of free constitutional government in the United States? If you gave yes as your answers to these questions, I predict that you would find, as I did, much in Emily Conrad’s The Faithless? The Untold Story of the Electoral College to interest you. It is an enticing read, particularly for students of the Electoral College, an institution through which in two of the five most recent past presidential elections the candidate who won the most popular votes lost the electoral vote majority and, as a result, the quest for the presidency.

Already acclaimed, this is the first book by Emily Conrad, the young author. An honors graduate of Wofford College, Conrad thereafter earned a Master’s in Law with a specialization in international relations at Peking University, the most revered university in China. Ironically perhaps, it was while she was in China that she garnered a keen interest in what is now the topic of this fine new book.

Although Conrad’s book carries much useful, even essential, general information about the Electoral College and its history, the principal value to the reader lies in the focus of her research and writing upon the so-called “faithless elector.” Assailed for violating their mandate or pledge to vote for the recipients of the popular vote in their states, faithless electors have generally been rare birds.

This was not so in 2016. That was the year when polls revealed that the two major presidential nominees were the most unpopular in the history of scientific polling. That year there were more faithless electors than in any other election in post-Nineteenth Century presidential history. Although the “faithless” electors were not the factor which tipped the electoral outcome to Trump although Hillary Clinton won the popular plurality, it is quite possible to imagine a situation in which that could have happened.

The first Monday after the second Wednesday in December is the day designated for the elected electors to travel to their state capitals to cast their votes. On that day in 2016, December 19, there were Trump-committed Republican electors who cast their votes instead for John Kasich or Ron Paul. Some Hillary Clinton-committed Democratic electors voted instead for Colin Powell, for Bernie Sanders, and for someone named Spotted Eagle. Others attempted “faithlessness” by voting for Bernie Sanders but were checkmated by authorities in their states.

These incidents of electoral faithlessness in 2016 would lead to the Chiafalo v. Washington decision which a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court announced on July 6, 2020. In Chiafalo, the high court sustained the constitutionality of state enactments which penalize and/or override and replace electors voting at odds with the general election popular vote outcome in their states. But even today, less than a month before the 2020 general election, roughly a third of the states have not enacted such measures for the enforcement of elector pledges.

Conrad got to know most of the 2016 renegades, and the biographical narratives she shares are fascinating and very revealing. Their reasons for violating commitments vary, but they appear public-spirited, not self-centered or autocratic. Several of them labeled themselves “Hamilton electors,” paying homage to the founder who most vigorously articulated the notion of elector free agency (see Federalist 68). Hamilton might well have returned the compliment, dubbing these dissenters to be the faithful, not faithless, given the reason the Electoral College was set up in the first place.

For many years I taught American Politics, and thus the presidential election process, to university students. Now, after reading Conrad’s book, I know that I would have some changes to make in what I would say in addressing the institution of the Electoral College. No one would claim that it is the most democratic institution the Founders devised; and it is undoubtedly true that there have been over the years some faithless electors who have acted irresponsibly and in contempt for the popular will. What the author has done through her thorough, engaging, and
informative profiles of “faithless” electors of 2016 is to liberate the actors from the stereotype that elector free agency is by definition synonymous with irresponsibility and disdain.

Even though it may well be argued that the time has arrived to reform or abolish the Electoral College, it is revealing to learn what the author found about the elector free agents of 2016 and what had motivated their decisions. For the most part, they were amateurs, some almost naively so, who were unconnected to any power elite. They were devoted to the Constitution and their responsibilities under it, and their criticism was not of their voting fellow citizens but of the system which had rendered just the two major general election nominees from which the voters could realistically chose in 2016.

3 thoughts on “The Faithless? The Untold Story of the Electoral College

  1. Prof. Gillespie, thanks for this informative piece on a potentially consequential aspect of the Constitutional setup of the Electoral College. As you have done much research on and written a couple books on third parties, what are some of your insights into reform/change of the current entrenched, too often dysfunctional, two party system?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your gracious response, Bob. Although there are historical examples of dysfunctional (and dangerous) partisan multipolarity (Germany in the very early 1930s, for example), I think what we are seeing now is a regimented duopoly which has calcified into a dysfunctional (and dangerous) zero-sum standoff between the two (self) protected parties. Bipartisanship may be inevitable under the U.S. constitutional arrangement and its derivative institutions (notably the electoral college and single-member district elections), but the hardened arteries have really come from the self-protective devices enacted or legislated by the two official parties; most notably (though not exclusively) the notoriously-diverse and difficult state laws on ballot-access, state anti-fusion and sore loser laws, closure of access to debate stages, discriminatory campaign funding statutes and judicial decisions, and media’s penchant for (largely) ignoring third-party and independent challengers. As for the electoral college specifically, there are for third-party challengers to the duopoly many burdens but (only} one benefit in that indirect system of presidential election. The benefit: it is possible, but only in “safely” red or blue states “not in play” in a presidential round, to vote third party out of protest or principle without “spoiling” the election for the major-party nominee more favored (or less disfavored) by the voter. (In a sense this would be the equivalent in the popular election to what a “faithless elector” may do when the electors vote). But a far more fruitful reform, recently and currently being showcased by Maine, would be use of instant runoff voting (aka ranked choice voting) in the presidential contest. Had it been in use in Florida in 2000, Sunshine State Naderites could have voted both Green for Nader and also blue or red for a major party nominee. Al Gore, the actual winner of the national popular vote, would thus almost certainly have won Florida’s popular votes and presidential election as a result. Other things which would contribute to taking us beyond enforced duopoly would be the elimination of partisan gerrymandering and the restoration and enforcement of equal access and fairness requirements in public broadcasting.


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