James A. Michener, Near-Faithless Elector

Democrats are beginning to entertain forbidden thoughts about encouraging electors in states that went for Bush to cast their ballots for Gore if Bush wins Florida. (See Charles Lane’s story in today’s Washington Post and David Savage’s in today’s Los Angeles Times. Matthew Miller also makes the argument in this Slate piece.) The idea is that since Gore will have won the popular vote, it will be OK to become a “faithless elector.” Most states bind their electors not by law but by tradition, and apparently the tradition has eroded in recent years. (Even the term “faithless elector” sounds kind of creaky and Victorian, doesn’t it?) According to James A. Michener’s 1969 book Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System, only four electors voted contrary to their state tallies between 1820 and 1964. Four faithless electors in 144 years! But it took only 23 more years to rack up the next four, including the most recent, Margarette Leach of West Virginia, who in 1988 decided that Lloyd Bentsen looked better at the top rather than the bottom of the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket. William Bennett might be tempted to attribute the speedup to the liberal assault on traditional values during the ‘60s and ‘70s–yet another case of defining deviancy down. But three of the four in that post-1964 batch actually broke faith out of allegiance to fringy right-wing causes. (Sorry, Bill!) The exception, Ms. Leach, told Martha Bryson Hodel of The Associated Press yesterday that she acted in order to call attention to the Electoral College’s unaccountability.

Michener’s book, which is partly an account of his own experiences as a Pennsylvania elector in 1968, reveals that the author of Hawaii and Centennial and Tales of the South Pacific had a few naughty thoughts himself about bolting during that tumultuous political year. Michener, a liberal Democrat, was worried that George Wallace might get enough votes to make himself king-maker in the Electoral College. Wallace and his campaign aides had made some public comments suggesting he planned to direct his electors to vote for Nixon or Humphrey, depending on which of the two would agree more wholeheartedly to a list of demands that included abandoning all civil rights legislation. This threat scared the daylights out of Michener. By Election Day it was clear that Humphrey was going to win Pennsylvania and that Michener was therefore headed to Harrisburg to perform the duties of elector. Michener resolved that if Nixon or Humphrey failed to win the 270 electoral votes necessary for victory, he would

inform all Republican and Democratic electors that I was interested in a plan whereby we would decide the election in the College between Nixon and Humphrey and not risk domination by Wallace. Rather than allow one man to dictate who our President should be, I thought it better for the nation that the two parties decide between themselves what an honorable compromise might be and then encourage their Electoral College members to swing enough votes to either Nixon or Humphrey to secure his election.

In the end, Humphrey won Pennsylvania, but Nixon won enough electoral votes to put him over the top nationally. Michener went off to Harrisburg weighted down with guilt (reading between the lines, Chatterbox wonders if it was disappointment) about his scuttled plan to walk on the wild side. But he was buoyed to learn, when he got there, that Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party chairman, Thomas Z. Minehart, had concocted a similar naughty plan.