Electors as Free Agents

“No one faithful to our history can deny that the plan originally contemplated, what is implicit in its text, that electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the men best qualified for the Nation’s highest offices.”112 Writing in 1826, Senator Thomas Hart Benton admitted that the framers had intended electors to be men of “superior discernment, virtue, and information,” who would select the President “according to their own will” and without reference to the immediate wishes of the people. “That this invention has failed of its objective in every election is a fact of such universal notoriety, that no one can dispute it. That it ought to have failed is equally uncontestable; for such independence in the electors was wholly incompatible with the safety of the people. [It] was, in fact, a chimerical and impractical idea in any community.”113

Electors constitutionally remain free to cast their ballots for any person they wish and occasionally they have done so.114 In 1968, for example, a Republican elector in North Carolina chose to cast his vote not for Richard M. Nixon, who had won a plurality in the state, but for George Wallace, the independent candidate who had won the second greatest number of votes. Members of both the House of Representatives and of the Senate objected to counting that vote for Mr. Wallace and insisted that it should be counted for Mr. Nixon, but both bodies decided to count the vote as cast.115

The power either of Congress116 or of the states to enact legislation binding electors to vote for the candidate of the party on the ticket of which they run has been the subject of much debate.117 It remains unsettled and the Supreme Court has touched on the issue only once and then tangentially. In Ray v. Blair,118 the Court upheld, against a challenge of invalidity under the Twelfth Amendment, a rule of the Democratic Party of Alabama, acting under delegated power of the legislature, that required each candidate for the office of presidential elector to take a pledge to support the nominees of the party’s convention for President and Vice President. The state court had determined that the Twelfth Amendment, following language of Clause 3, required that electors be absolutely free to vote for anyone of their choice. Justice Reed wrote for the Court:

“It is true that the Amendment says the electors shall vote by ballot. But it is also true that the Amendment does not prohibit an elector’s announcing his choice beforehand, pledging himself. The suggestion that in the early elections candidates for electors— contemporaries of the Founders—would have hesitated, because of constitutional limitations, to pledge themselves to support party nominees in the event of their selection as electors is impossible to accept. History teaches that the electors were expected to support the party nominees. Experts in the history of government recognize the longstanding practice. Indeed, more than twenty states do not print the names of the candidates for electors on the general election ballot. Instead, in one form or another, they allow a vote for the presidential candidate of the national conventions to be counted as a vote for his party’s nominees for the electoral college. This long-continued practical interpretation of the constitutional propriety of an implied or oral pledge of his ballot by a candidate for elector as to his vote in the electoral college weighs heavily in considering the constitutionality of a pledge, such as the one here required, in the primary.”

“However, even if such promises of candidates for the electoral college are legally unenforceable because violative of an assumed constitutional freedom of the elector under the Constitution, Art. II, § 1, to vote as he may choose in the electoral college, it would not follow that the requirement of a pledge in the primary is unconstitutional. A candidacy in the primary is a voluntary act of the applicant. He is not barred, discriminatorily, from participating but must comply with the rules of the party. Surely one may voluntarily assume obligations to vote for a certain candidate. The state offers him opportunity to become a candidate for elector on his own terms, although he must file his declaration before the primary. Ala. Code, Tit. 17, § 145. Even though the victory of an independent candidate for elector in Alabama cannot be anticipated, the state does offer the opportunity for the development of other strong political organizations where the need is felt for them by a sizable block of voters. Such parties may leave their electors to their own choice.”

“We conclude that the Twelfth Amendment does not bar a political party from requiring the pledge to support the nominees of the National Convention. Where a state authorizes a party to choose its nominees for elector in a party primary and to fix the qualifications for the candidates, we see no federal constitutional objection to the requirement of this pledge.”119 Justice Jackson, with Justice Douglas, dissented: “It may be admitted that this law does no more than to make a legal obligation of what has been a voluntary general practice. If custom were sufficient authority for amendment of the Constitution by Court decree, the decision in this matter would be warranted. Usage may sometimes impart changed content to constitutional generalities, such as ‘due process of law,’ ‘equal protection,’ or ‘commerce among the states.’ But I do not think powers or discretions granted to federal officials by the Federal Constitution can be forfeited by the Court for disuse. A political practice which has its origin in custom must rely upon custom for its sanctions.”120


343 U.S. at 232 (Justice Jackson dissenting). See THE FEDERALIST, No. 68 (J. Cooke ed. 1961), 458 (Hamilton); 3 J. STORY, COMMENTARIES ON THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES 1457 (1833). [Back to text]
S. REP. NO. 22, 19th Cong., 1st Sess. 4 (1826). [Back to text]
All but the most recent instances are summarized in N. Pierce, supra, 122–124. [Back to text]
115 CONG. REC. 9–11, 145–171, 197–246 (1969). [Back to text]
Congress has so provided in the case of electors of the District of Columbia, 75 Stat. 818 (1961), D.C. Code § 1–1108(g), but the reference in the text is to the power of Congress to bind the electors of the states. [Back to text]
At least thirteen states have statutes binding their electors, but none has been tested in the courts. [Back to text]
343 U.S. 214 (1952). [Back to text]
343 U.S. at 228–31. [Back to text]
343 U.S. at 233. [Back to text]