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Electoral College: In 1796, Samuel Miles Became The 1st Faithless Elector

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Across the country today, electors will cast their votes in the Electoral College. And as always with this day, there's a tiny chance some of those electors won't vote the same way the voters in their state did. These people are known as faithless electors. NPR's Miles Parks went on a journey to learn about the very first one.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Can you tell me where we are right now?

CLAIRE FINKELSTEIN: We're in Miles Park in Lafayette Hills, Pa.

PARKS: You are hearing that correctly. Believe it or not, this quest took me to a place called Miles Park.

FINKELSTEIN: Miles Park is apparently named for a guy named Samuel Miles, who was an elector. He is well-known principally because he was a so-called faithless elector in the 1796 election.

PARKS: That's Claire Finkelstein. She's a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And I asked her to meet me here ahead of today's Electoral College meetings. It's easy to forget on Election Day when you're casting your ballot, but the Electoral College votes are each cast by real people, too, each with their own individual opinions about who should be president. And in about half of the presidential elections since 1968, at least one elector has gone rogue and decided to vote out of line with the choice of the people in their state.

FINKELSTEIN: They don't do it much. In fact, they are, in general, chosen because they are party loyalists. So they are not supposed to be people who keep an open mind. They're not supposed to be blank slates like members of a jury.

PARKS: Still, every election, because of the system, up until this date - the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December - the losing party can hold out the slightest bit of hope that maybe - maybe - the electors will save their candidate. One faithless elector from Colorado, Michael Baca, tried to organize an effort in 2016 to get a different moderate Republican elected instead of President Trump. Faithless electors have never swung the outcome of a presidential race. But here's Baca talking to NPR back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL BACA: I want to push back on the term faithless electors. I believe that we're being faithful electors or even conscientious electors because we're making sure that the president doesn't fall to someone without the requisite requirements such as Donald Trump.

PARKS: But when he went against the voters' choice, he violated a state law that required electors to vote the way the people do. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled this past summer that states were within their rights to punish or switch out faithless electors. Here's Finkelstein again.

FINKELSTEIN: So in fact, that starts to change our idea of what electors are. They are not like individual voters making up their minds. But they are pre-committed to certain candidates. And the Supreme Court says it's totally legal for states to require their electors to remain that way.

PARKS: The decision did probably sadden some of the more free-thinking electors like Bill Greene. He cast a faithless vote for Ron Paul in Texas in 2016. And he joined Paul's webcast show to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Would you confess that you had a little bit of fun participating in this election this year?

BILL GREENE: (Laughter) Oh, I have a confession to make. I had a lot of fun...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...This election. And this is probably some of the most fun I've ever had.

PARKS: But many voters, especially all those people who thought they were voting directly for president over the past 200 years, are probably happy to see faithless electors on their way out. Even back in 1796, a voter not far from here was famously frustrated with Samuel Miles for voting against the will of the people. I choose him to act, the voter said, not to think.

From Miles Park, I'm Miles Parks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIANTS' "ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.