Faithless Elector Watch

A desperate, last-ditch opportunity for Kerry.

Four years ago, it struck me as a very real possibility that three Bush electors would betray the Republicans and cast their votes for Al Gore, thereby aligning Gore’s popular-vote plurality with an Electoral College victory. After all, I reasoned, in recent presidential elections there had more often than not been a “faithless elector” (and if you count the “Greeley faithless,” of whom only a tiny elite of Electoral College bores is aware, then going all the way back to George Washington there have been more faithless electors than presidential elections). Perhaps the trauma of Bush’s popular-vote loss would persuade two Republicans outraged by the antidemocratic workings of the Electoral College to jump ship. There was, after all, no federal prohibition against their doing so, and state laws binding electors to the popular vote within their state are generally thought unconstitutional. The Nation magazine very naughtily urged that three Republican electors step forward to spare the nation four years of George W. Bush, which in retrospect sounds like an excellent idea. But it was not to be. The only faithless elector in 2000 turned out to be a Democrat, one Barbara Lett-Simmons, a Gore elector from Washington, D.C., who abstained in order to protest that jurisdiction’s lack of any voting member in Congress. I likened this gesture at the time to protesting a famine by waging a hunger strike.

Lett-Simmons, you’ll be glad to hear, is not an elector this year, and there are many more Republicans who can’t stand the sight of President Bush. Paradoxically, however, there are also many more Republicans willing to vote for President Bush. Dubya won the popular vote this time by a larger margin (3 percent) than he lost it last time (0.51 percent). Dubya won in the Electoral College by 34 electoral votes, or 29 electoral votes more than his electoral-vote margin in 2000 (five electoral votes). The popular will was not thwarted. But that’s only because, if Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is to be believed, President Bush won Ohio by a mere 118,775 votes, which works out to a little more than two percentage points. If John Kerry had gotten 118,776 more votes in Ohio, he would have claimed Ohio’s 20 electors, giving him 272 electors to Bush’s 266. For want of 118,776 votes, John Kerry lost the presidency. I’m not going to pretend I don’t still brood about this.

The magic number for 2004 is 18. If 18 Bush electors betray both their party and the popular vote and cast their votes for John Kerry on Dec. 13—when, as we Electoral College bores like to point out, the real presidential election takes place in state capitals around the country—then John Kerry will become president. It isn’t remotely likely, and it would violate the principle of democratic government (just as the Electoral College itself does). But it remains in the realm of the possible.

The one presidential elector who has threatened to go faithless this year is a Republican. He is Richie Robb, mayor of South Charleston, W. Va., * and three months ago he was threatening to withhold his electoral vote from Bush to protest the president’s policies. A little more than a month ago he reaffirmed that threat. After the election, Robb said that Bush’s margin of victory in West Virginia was sufficiently great that he would probably vote for Bush after all, but he still refused to say so for certain. Today is the deadline for states to replace electors and still keep their electoral vote count “presumptively valid” when Congress formally tallies the votes on Jan. 5. (Yet another argument against the Electoral College: This ceremonial crap takes more than two months to wrap up.) Yet Robb, bafflingly, has not been dropped as a Bush elector. So that may be one faithless elector right there.

Two? Do I hear two?

Just asking.

Correction, Dec. 9, 2004: An earlier version of this column misidentified the city Robb is mayor of as Charleston, W.Va. (Return to corrected sentence.)

[Update, Dec. 9: In stating that only 118,776 Ohio votes stood between Kerry and the presidency, I was imagining that 118,776 of those Ohioans who didn’t vote at all had instead voted for Kerry. But as several readers point out, if you imagine Kerry winning additional votes not from Ohio nonvoters but from Ohio Bush voters, then a mere 59,389 Ohio votes stood between Kerry and the presidency. Try not to think too much about that.]