Faithless Elector Watch: The Greeley Precedent

“Where nobody’s right, nobody was wrong … “
–John David Souther, “Faithless Love” (to listen, click here and scroll to Disk No. 3, Track No. 19)

When respectable commentators and media outlets want to express disapproval of electoral faithlessness, they typically say that it is very unlikely. “There is absolutely no chance–none whatsoever–that we will have a faithless elector in this election,” Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, was quoted telling the Florida Times-Union on Nov. 20. “If you think there’s even a possibility of a faithless elector, you’re barking up the wrong tree.” Why is electoral faithlessness unlikely? Because it almost never occurs. “Electors Almost Never Defect” read the headline of a Nov. 17 Washington Post story by Edward Walsh.

If you’ve read Chatterbox’s advice column for faithless electors (“Ask Doctor Faithless!“), you know this isn’t true. Or rather, that it hasn’t been true in modern times. There were seven instances of electoral faithlessness in the 13 presidential elections held between 1948 and 1996. That constitutes more than half, which means that electoral faithlessness is more common than complete electoral faithfulness. Given that a faithless elector this time out would very possibly be changing history, as opposed to indulging in a bit of performance art, Chatterbox thinks there’s a respectable chance we’ll see more electoral faithlessness this year than usual. (It’s also vaguely possible, of course, that because faithlessness could have a real effect, electors will be less likely to make the gaudy gesture.) More could mean two faithless electors, which would send the election to the House of Representatives (where Bush would likely prevail), or, tantalizingly, three faithless electors, which would give the election to Gore. (If it’s just one faithless elector, which is what it’s been in the past, the only consequence will be lots and lots of media attention.)

In his earlier writings on the subject, Chatterbox generously conceded that prior to 1948, Electoral College faithfulness was quite uncommon. That is to say, there were only two instances, in 1796 and 1820. Or, if you really want to stretch it, 10, counting eight electors from New York and North Carolina who may have violated their pledges in the 1824 presidential race among John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford, which famously ended up in the House of Representatives. The circumstances here were murky, so Chatterbox didn’t count them.

But now Chatterbox is wondering whether he shouldn’t include in his pre-1948 calculation another set of faithless electors of which he was previously unaware. This batch is from the election of 1872. That was the year Horace (“Go West, Young Man”) Greeley lost to Ulysses S. Grant. Greeley won 66 votes in the Electoral College, but 63 of his electors went faithless on him. Why? Because during the crucial period between Election Day and the counting of electoral votes, Greeley dropped dead. Voting for a dead man was viewed to be in such poor taste that the three Greeley electors who stayed faithful saw their Greeley-cast ballots tossed out by Congress. (Jean Carnahan, take note.) The 63 Greeley electors who cast their votes for various other Democrats apparently failed to suffer any opprobrium.

If you count Greeley’s faithless electors, the total number of faithless electors in U.S. history rises to 72. Which, remembering that there have been 53 presidential elections altogether (not counting the current one), averages out to 1.36 faithless electors per election–a significantly higher rate of faithlessness than has existed since 1948 (0.54 electors per election). And remember, that’s not even counting the eight possibly-faithless electors from 1824! But Chatterbox is open to persuasion that Greeley’s faithless electors are a different animal from what we may see on Dec. 18, when this year’s electors cast their votes.