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The United States uses an Electoral College system, where electors pledge to cast their vote in a particular way. However, these electors have the ability to vote in a manner that directly contradicts their pledge.

What purpose is served by allowing for the possibility of a faithless elector? Is this part of the system specifically designed to consider the possibility that an elected candidate could die before the elector is able to cast their vote, or is it intended to be the last check in the election process?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

It's essentially a remnant from a time when the U.S. political system worked differently. (Not unlike the Electoral College itself, according to some.)

When the Constitution was written in 1787, information traveled much more slowly than it does today, and the framers believed that most people would not be well-informed about issues and candidates outside of their own state. Consequently, rather than having people vote directly for the President, they instead had people vote for electors, who would be prominent, well-informed citizens of their respective states. The idea was that people would vote for electors whom they generally agreed with and would trust to make the right decision. Electors would then use their individual judgment in voting for President.

Obviously, this isn't how the system works today, but changing the Constitution is hard, so electors are still technically able to choose who to vote for, even though their names no longer actually appear on the ballot. Some states do have laws that attempt to compel electors to vote for the candidate they're pledged to, but not all.

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More of a remnant from how the authors of the Constitution thought the system would work. In reality, pledged electors (and one "faithless elector", and complaints against him) were already around for the first contested election in 1796. –  dan04 Jun 16 '13 at 3:59
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In the election of 1872, Grant easily beat Horace Greely, 286 to what would have been 66 votes for Greely. Had this been reversed, however, there would have been an issue - Greely died after the general election but before the Electoral College voted. Even worse, shortly before his death, Greely went mad, and was about to be committed.

Had Greely been the winner of the general election, an interesting problem would have arisen - who should be President? As unpledged electors, the voters had put their faith in a representative sample of men (and yes, it was men!) who generally voted in line with what Greely would have wanted. Allowing electors to vote according to their wishes avoids the problem by electing an idea, rather than a person.

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