On the morning of Dec. 13, 2004, Tim O’Brien woke at his home in Edina and drove to the state Capitol in St. Paul. It was a cold Monday, the temperature in the teens. Light snow that had fallen overnight was blowing around. A few weeks earlier, Americans had chosen to re-elect George W. Bush for president. Now it was O’Brien’s turn to vote.
O’Brien has been a Democratic activist for decades, and in the Governor’s Reception Room at the Capitol he was joined by nine others from around the state. They were electors, chosen by the DFL Party faithful to represent Minnesota voters in the event that John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, won the state. Kerry did — like every Democratic presidential candidate has since 1976 — and the DFL electors were ready to give him his due.
By noon, the 10 electors were in the Capitol rotunda, seated at a long table with a white tablecloth, facing the curious and the press. The crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The Mahtomedi High School Chamber Choir sang the national anthem. The electors took an oath. Then they were given ballots: two sheets of plain white copier paper with the state seal and a blank line on each page, marked president and vice president. After filling in the blanks, the electors placed their ballots in a green pine box.
O’Brien was pleased to have been “a small part of a significant historical event,” he recalls. “I was discharging an important responsibility. But my sense of accomplishment was somewhat muted by virtue of the fact that I, and my fellow Minnesota electors, were on the losing side.” After the ballots were all in, he and everyone else was ready to go home.
Then Mary Kiffmeyer, Minnesota’s secretary of state at the time, pulled out the ballots and looked at them. Kiffmeyer was “shocked,” she later told the media, by what she found.
On one of the ballots, someone had written “John Ewards” [sic] for president, a reference to Kerry’s vice presidential candidate, John Edwards. Because of this, Kerry would receive one less vote from electors than he’d earned.
Minnesota, in Electoral College parlance, had itself a “faithless elector” — the last in American political history. The ballots were not signed. Neither O’Brien nor the nine other electors claimed to know who the rogue elector was. It was a mystery that was nearly forgotten until now.
An anomaly among anomalies
When all is said and counted, Donald Trump will have won the 2016 presidential election despite earning almost 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. This disparity, along with the shock of Trump’s win, has prompted a fresh examination of the Electoral College. Liberal activists have pressured Republican electors to turn “faithless” on Dec. 19, when they gather in statehouses across the country, and to vote for Clinton or anyone else other than Trump. A petition calling for such a conscientious objection has attracted more than 4.7 million signatures.
Thirty-seven electors would have to rebel for Trump to lose the Electoral College, a faithlessness unprecedented in modern times. Of the 157 instances of electoral vote-switching, most were in the antebellum era. Trump, as unpopular as he is, is unlikely to inspire the electoral umbrage directed at Richard M. Johnson in 1836 for his open liaison with a slave mistress. Nor is Trump, unlike Horace Greeley in 1872, dead.
Even back then, when dozens of electors sometimes strayed at once, it didn’t matter. “Faithless electors have never changed the outcome of an election,” notes political historian Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota. “They are usually making a point.” Like the Southern “Dixiecrat” elector who voted for segregationist Strom Thurmond in 1948 instead of Harry Truman. Or, more recently, the elector from Washington, D.C., who in 2000 protested the district’s lack of congressional representation by refusing to cast any vote.
Minnesota’s faithless elector, resurrected by the media since Trump’s victory, may be an anomaly among anomalies. “It is my opinion that if someone intentionally voted for Edwards that he or she would have identified themselves and offered up some rationale for such a decision,” says O’Brien, an attorney who remains active in DFL circles. “Since none was forthcoming, I can only conclude that it was an error on the part of one of the other nine electors and that the individual, whoever that might have been, was too embarrassed to acknowledge the mistake.”
At the time, electors speculated that the stray vote was a “senior moment.” Electors are typically long-time party activists, elected at district and state conventions in recognition of decades of service. In 2004, the youngest DFL elector was 52, with the average age far higher. The oldest — civil rights leader Matthew Little — was 83.
Other observers were less sympathetic. As much overt racism as the recent election has brought into the open, it was already there online in 2004, on the bulletin boards where Minnesotans talked politics. “Not to be racist,” one writer opined, which was an obvious sign that what was to follow was absolutely racist, “but I bet the person spelling it ‘Ewards’ was black. My first name is Edward, and a black person has NEVER pronounced the D in my name!”
Another went straight into dialect: “I done performed by cibic dutee yesterday. Voting for ’at hillbilly John Edwards, wut wit ’at thar shiney hair.”
Several of the 2004 electors have since died. Others didn’t respond to requests for comment. But some did, including Jean Schiebel of Brooklyn Center, who says she still thinks the vote was a mistake and that “several of us suspected who it was.” No one, she says, “was going to betray that elector.”
The person who tried hardest, Schiebel says, was a Republican. Michael Brodkorb, then a relentless conservative watchdog and the author of blog called Minnesota Democrats Exposed (Brodkorb now writes a column for MinnPost), obtained photographs of the ballots. “He slowly checked the handwriting,” Schiebel told me.
Although the mistake didn’t affect the election, Republicans still wanted someone to pay a price.
In the Minnesota State Archives, housed in the Minnesota Historical Society vaults in St. Paul, all of the state’s Electoral College records going back to 1887 are kept in a single brown cardboard banker’s box. “To His Excellency, Knute Nelson, Governor of Minnesota,” begins one of the early reports, “we have the honor to hereby notify you that we are at the city of Saint Paul … and ready at the proper time to perform the duties of Presidential Electors.”
The 2004 ballots are in a manila folder, along with one of the blue-and-gold pens used that day and the official press release from the secretary of state, noting “Nine of the electors chose John Kerry for President; one of the electors chose John Edwards for President.” When I opened the folder, the “Ewards” ballot was atop the stack, as though someone wanted to draw attention to it.
“JOHN EWARDS,” all in caps, fills the entire line.
Strangely, that wasn’t the only incorrect ballot that year. Another says “John Kerry & John Edwards” for president. Looking through other ballots, from other years, the variation is remarkable: William J. Clinton, Bill Clinton, Albert Gore Jr., Al Gore, Barack Hussein Obama. The handwriting, as in the wider world, varies from fine cursive to chicken scratches.
Comparing handwriting from one year to the next might offer a clue, but electors typically serve only once. “There is nothing that would prevent an elector from seeking to be elected again,” O’Brien says, “although many, including myself, consider it bad form to seek to serve again inasmuch as there are any number of other individuals who would also like to serve in that capacity.”
One 2004 elector, however, was a regular: Matthew Little, the prominent Civil Rights leader in Minneapolis who died in 2014. He was an elector at least three other times, in 1976, 1992, and 2008. As the oldest elector in 2004, and African-American, he was likely the unspecified target of the internet trolls. Yet a couple hours of comparing ballots from his years of service, looking for patterns to accuse or acquit him, was inconclusive, a reminder of how inconsistent we all are, in our writing and elsewhere in life.
Brodkorb, it turns out, let it go almost as soon as he grabbed on. “It turned into a quite a big mystery,” he told me. “I remember getting the [electors’] names, I ran a couple stories, tried to figure it out.”
He hoped that information would leak out. But nothing ever did. “We were never able to ascertain who did it,” he says.
He has a different perspective on the incident now. “We tried to make a big dustup about it,” he says, meaning Republicans. “It’s a classic example of partisans trying to make something more out of small things.”
Brodkorb dropped his own partisan rhetoric when the GOP dropped him from his Senate communications post a few years ago, and he has since investigated Republicans as well as Democrats in media columns. “Looking back,” he says, “it’s pretty clear one of the electors simply made a mistake, nothing more nefarious than that.”
It was a mistake that led the Minnesota Legislature, the very next year, to tighten up the electoral process. The statute was changed to make electors’ votes public; any electors deviating from their pledge will now be called out at the ceremony and immediately replaced. “The advent of a faithless elector is quite remarkable, and it reflected badly on the DFL,” recalls Carleton College political science science professor Steven Schier. “Political parties are in charge of recruiting faithful electors, after all.”
Just 12 years later, though, as elections are subject to foreign hacking and factual relativity, an uproar over a handwritten error in St. Paul seems almost quaint. “It just shows the humanness of the process,” Kiffmeyer said at the time, but it’s become harder to see ourselves in the machine. To hold the entirety of a state’s presidential vote in a single box, and to see a few mistaken letters on a piece of paper, is to remember our own agency and the fragile human nature of democracy.