BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY — As rumors of rogue electors spike the December air, I offer this piece from 2001, which is included in my Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from An Alternative America, which of course you, as a literate American, already own. (Sorry for the extortionate price.) By the way, my wife was John Hospers’s assistant and friend at USC, so I have a special fondness for electors who wander off into third-party pastures.

The Electoral College has shut down for another four years. Gorey fantasies of “faithless electors” escaping their ironclad lockboxes and bolting from Bush to Prince Albert have come to naught. Apparently the Republicans have learned something about vetting electors since 1972, when a GOP elector deserted–and did so quite predictably. For the ’72 renegade, Roger Lea MacBride, had written a book 20 years earlier in which he praised the conscience-driven elector as a vital, if all too rare, feature of the Electoral College. Sometimes authors mean what they write.

As a lad of 16, Roger MacBride, a Coke-bottle spectacled son of a Reader’s Digest editor, fell under the spell of a family friend, Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame. Rose, a libertarian globetrotter and popular journalist who once rejected a marriage proposal from King Zog of Albania, had become a cause celebre when she refused to accept a Social Security number. (“I will have nothing to do with that Ponzi fraud because it is treason; it will wreck this country as it wrecked Germany. I won’t have it; you can’t make me,” she declared.)

The childless Lane made MacBride her “adopted grandson,” a winning lottery ticket if ever there were one. He became heir to the Little House fortune, which is ample enough to build big houses from one end of South Dakota to the other.

As a young lawyer, MacBride wrote a little book titled The American Electoral College (1953) in which he proposed a “district system” similar to that now in use in Nebraska and Maine; electors would be awarded by congressional district, with two bonus electors given to the winner of the state. “The district mode was mostly, if not exclusively, in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted,” explained James Madison, but largely abandoned as states sought to maximize their relative influence by delivering their electors as a bloc to the victor.

MacBride deplored deviations from the Founders’ intent, for instance the fact that “Electors almost never exercis[e] independent judgment.” They had become mere “mechanical men,” drones who in some states are forbidden by law from voting their conscience.

MacBride urged an “attempt to restore to the members of the Electoral College some of the function of independent thinking and action assigned to them by the Federal Convention.” In this he was echoing Madison, who in 1823 had endorsed the independence of electors: “altho’ generally the mere mouths of their Constituents, they may be intentionally left sometimes to their own judgment, guided by further information.”

MacBride’s book disappeared without a trace, and in 1972 the champion of the faithless elector was chosen by the Virginia Republican Party as a Nixon-Agnew elector. It would seem that the fabled Nixon intelligence team, otherwise occupied at the Watergate, failed to do the necessary background check.
Meanwhile, at a much less pricey (if bug-less) hotel 2,000 miles westward–the Denver Radisson–the Libertarian Party was born. In that Watergate June of 1972, 100 devotees of laissez-faire–Ayn Rand readers, free marketeers disgusted by the Nixon administration’s imposition of wage and price controls, and congenital rebels–nominated for President John Hospers, an eminent philosopher from USC who once almost flunked a football-swift but classroom-slow jock named O.J. Simpson. “Humbled, dubious, and a bit frightened,” Hospers ran a thoughtful and low-key campaign; his name appeared on the ballot in just two states. When he told a colleague at USC that he was running for President, the impressed pedant replied, “President of the Faculty Council?”

But Hospers had a secret. Roger MacBride had phoned the philosopher to tell him that he intended to cast his electoral vote for Hospers and running mate Tonie Nathan, thus ensuring that the first woman to receive a vote in the Electoral College had no familial ties to organized crime.

The Hospers-Nathan ticket received just 3,673 votes, but the big surprise came one month after Election Day, when Vice President Spiro Agnew announced to a befuddled nation that one electoral vote had been cast for John Hospers of California, placing him just 16 electoral votes behind George McGovern.
Roger MacBride’s faithlessness–or was it fealty to a higher principle?–earned him the Libertarian Party’s 1976 presidential nomination, but this time around there were no refractory libertarians lurking on the greensward of old Electoral College.

MacBride’s bolt invigorated the newborn Libertarian Party, and it taught the older parties a valuable lesson: When appointing electors, stick with hacks. And never choose a man who has written in praise of the faithless elector.

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Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.