Hillary Clinton’s supporters are hoping against hope that some electors who are supposed to vote for Donald Trump will, instead, decide to vote for Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s leading in the popular vote, but Trump won the election thanks to the electoral college. Right now, the election results show 290 electoral college votes for Trump and 232 for Clinton, even though Clinton is leading in the popular vote with 61,318,162 to 60,541,308. Some places aren’t calling Michigan yet, but if it goes to Trump, those electoral votes will widen his lead even more. But it’s Trump’s lagging in the popular vote that’s fueling some voters’ desire to convince electors to switch and vote for Hillary Clinton instead. In fact, a petition urging such a change already has more than 4 million signatures. Have electors ever turned “faithless” before? Yes, they have. But never in the numbers needed to make a difference in this election.
Here’s what you need to know.
In many states, electors can become faithless electors and switch their vote to any candidate that they wish. However, some states use laws or pledges to bind their electors to vote for a specific candidate. The penalty for breaking this pledge isn’t typically severe. According to Inverse, the charge is typically a misdemeanor and a fine of about $1,000. There are 15 states that don’t bind their electors, according to NBC 11. These are Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.
In the past, some electors have indeed stepped out and voted against their state’s popular vote, but this hasn’t happened since 2004. According to CNN, electors turned faithless in nine out of the last 17 elections. And in total, 179 electors have changed their vote for President or Vice President, according to FairVote.org.
There was only one time in history that faithless electors altered the result of an electoral vote. In 1836, all 23 electors in Virginia opted to be faithless. They were pledged to vote for Martin Van Buren and his running mate, Richard Mentor Johnson. But instead, they all refused to vote for Johnson. The Senate decided the election and ended up choosing Johnson anyway.
Here are some of the more recent faithless electors, from 1960 to present:
In 1960, Republican Harry Irwin from Oklahoma cast a faithless vote for Virginia Senator Harry Byrd. It was part of a plan Democrats had created in a last-ditch effort to find an alternative to John F. Kennedy, while not electing Richard Nixon. In the end, only one person went faithless.
In 1968, North Carolina elector Lloyd Bailey was pledged to Richard Nixon. Instead, he voted for the American Independent Party candidate George Wallace and his running mate Curtis LeMay. This was the year that Wallace got 45 electoral votes as a third-party candidate, a feat that no one has matched since.
In 1972, Virginia elector Roger MacBride was pledged to Republican Richard Nixon. Instead, he voted for Libertarian John Hospers and running mate Tonie Nathan.
In 1976, a big push was made to deny Jimmy Carter the win over Gerald Ford and his running mate, Bob Dole. Carter had won a narrow victory with only about 5,000 votes in Ohio and 3,000 in Hawaii. Dole later admitted that the Ford-Dole campaign had actually tried to influence Democrat electors by “shopping around” for electors who were willing to change their vote. Ultimately, it didn’t work. However, a Washington elector pledged to Gerald Ford did switch and voted for Ronald Reagan instead. He still voted for Dole as VP.
In 1988, a West Virginia elector who was pledged to Democrat Michael Dukakis voted for Bentsen instead. She said she voted in protest of the winner-take-all electoral college system.
In 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote and George Bush won the electoral vote, things were very tense. There were concerns that Gore might have rightfully won the electoral vote too, if ballots were counted incorrectly in Florida. CNN reported that there was a strong lobbying campaign seeking to influence Republican voters to switch to Gore. Some of the electors told CNN that they even received death threats over the whole thing. In the end, only one Washington D.C. elector went faithless. She was pledged to Gore, but abstained from voting as a protest over D.C.’s lack of congressional representation.
In 2004, the most recent time there was a faithless elector, an elector in Minnesota voted for John Edwards as both president and vice president. No elector ever admitted to being the one who cast that vote. Since then, Minnesota requires that electors’ votes be made public.
We haven’t had a faithless elector since 2004. Will that streak end in 2016? Even if it does, there’s no precedent for electors switching in the numbers needed to give the election over to Hillary Clinton.