Today would have been the 93rd birthday of a politician named Lloyd Bentsen, who was a Senator from the state of Texas and served as Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton. Bentsen was probably most famous for being the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1988, chosen for that position by Michael Dukakis, former Governor of Massachusetts. Dukakis, as everyone knows, went down to an epic defeat against the first George Bush, who buried him with 426 electoral votes to 111. However, you’ll note those numbers only add up to 537 electoral votes, and as blogger Nate Silver has drilled into our heads, the total is 538. Who got one extra electoral vote? Lloyd Bentsen did.
That one lonely vote for Lloyd Bentsen for President of the United States was cast by a woman named Margaret Leach, a Democratic party official in West Virginia. The Constitution establishes the Electoral College as the official body that elects the President. (We just went over this last week). Those “electors” are usually party hacks or other bureaucrats, pledged by private contract with the party that appoints them to cast their votes for the winner of the majority of his or her state’s popular votes. However, it does sometimes happen that an elector will break the rules and cast a vote for somebody else. Some states have laws that punish “faithless electors,” and some don’t.
Lloyd Bentsen will always be remembered for delivering one of the most famous ad-libs in the history of American politics: the ultimate slamdown “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” directed at Dan Quayle.
Margaret Leech cast her Presidential ballot for Lloyd Bentsen. If you recall the 1988 campaign, many Democrats thought Bentsen was a stronger candidate than Dukakis, and Leech obviously thought so–she cast her Presidential ballot for him, leaving no doubt as to who she favored. Of course it had no bearing on the result of the election, but it did get Bentsen officially on the board.
Ms. Leech’s indiscretion is the last example of a deliberate “faithless elector” in American history. In 2000, one elector from the District of Columbia refused to vote, as a protest against the legal status of D.C.; four years later, an elector from Minnesota cast one Presidential ballot for John Edwards, evidently by mistake. Ms. Leech died in 2007; Lloyd Bentsen passed away the year before.
I actually saw Lloyd Bentsen in person once, in 1988, only a few weeks after the Presidential election. I was touring Washington with a school group and saw him getting on an elevator in the Capitol building. That is as close as I’ve come to national elected office, which admittedly isn’t very close. What can I say? I’m no Jack Kennedy.