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Washington’s electoral drama of 1976

Sen. Mike Padden saw "quite a battle" back in 1976, he was a 30-year old Gonzaga-educated attorney and an active member of the Republican Party. (Contributed)
LISTEN: Washington's electoral drama of 1976

Even before this year’s election, some were expressing concern about the Electoral College, that somewhat esoteric Constitutional process by which each state in the Union convenes a group of “electors” to officially select the president a few weeks after the national vote. One candidate might win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College. Or, some said, the process might get disrupted by an elector choosing to vote for someone other than he or she was supposed to vote for.

While it remains to be seen what will happen this time around, a Spokane Valley man staged exactly this kind of rare electoral disruption right here in Olympia 40 years ago.

Mike Padden is a member of the State Senate representing the 4th Legislative District, and a former district court judge. Back in 1976, he was a 30-year old Gonzaga-educated attorney and an active member of the Republican Party. It was a time when the GOP was deeply divided over presidential candidates.

Related: Washington was reshaped by the 1980 election

“There was quite a battle between Governor Reagan and [President] Gerald Ford. In fact, Reagan carried our state [in the Republican caucuses]” Senator Padden said.

Padden was a Reagan supporter. He was offered a chance by party officials in Spokane County to go to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City that summer, but he says the $3,000 cost to attend was too high.

“[So then] they said, ‘Well, would you like to be the elector?’ And I said ‘sure.’ So that’s kinda how that happened,” Padden said.

President Ford beat back Ronald Reagan’s challenge and captured the Republican nomination, while the Democrats nominated Governor Jimmy Carter.

Being a Republican elector meant that when President Gerald Ford carried Washington in the 1976 election (but lost to Jimmy Carter in the overall race), Mike Padden’s duty was to go to Olympia on Dec. 13 to cast his electoral vote for Ford.

“I drove over from the Spokane Valley and stayed with my cousin the night before,” Padden said. “We were greeted by the Secretary of State and had a little welcome, but it was a fairly short ceremony and they gave us a document to sign for both president and vice president. And that was about it.”

David Ammons is Communications Director for Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman. In 1976, he was a reporter covering Olympia for the Associated Press, and he was in the room when the electors met and the formal process began.

“Everybody thought it would go according to the script, and Mike Padden stunned everyone,” Ammons said.

“Now, this is reaching back a lot of decades, but I recall he signed his paper, and then announced that he had voted for Ronald Reagan instead of Jerry Ford,” Ammons said.

There were gasps, Ammons says, and “there was a lot of people [with] eyebrows raised and wondering what to do, but there was no prescription against it, other than he didn’t do what he was supposed to do by everybody’s expectation.”

Mike Padden says he wasn’t acting recklessly. He even says he was following a court case in Ohio that morning that had bearing on the outcome of the Electoral College vote.

“I used my own best judgment and decided what to do and went through a process checking to see if, by any chance, the race could be very close,” Padden said “If it was within one or two or three electoral votes, I wouldn’t have voted for Governor Reagan but would have voted for Gerald Ford.” Padden did cast his vice-presidential ballot for Robert Dole, Gerald Ford’s running mate.

Padden feels that the term used recently by many to describe his actions in 1976 is inaccurate.

“There’s a name for it, but I sort of contest the term in my case because I don’t feel it applies,” said Senator Padden. “The term is ‘faithless elector,’ but that implies that there was a pledge that somebody made and they wrote the pledge. In my case, back in 1976, almost 40 years ago, there wasn’t any pledge. There wasn’t any restriction at all.”

The restriction came soon after Mike Padden cast his vote for Ronald Reagan. In the next session, the Washington Legislature passed a law requiring political parties to make their electors sign pledges to vote for the popularly elected candidate, and instituting a $1,000 fine for electors choosing to vote for other candidates.

“That was real money back then,” said David Ammons.

When asked half-jokingly by a reporter, Padden laughed and said that no, the 1977 law wasn’t named for him.

“I was a little upset [the Legislature] never even notified me or asked me to come testify about it,” Padden said. “However, most constitutional experts believe [the law is] clearly unconstitutional, since the Electoral College is actually [mentioned] in the Constitution.”

That law was cited earlier this year when at least one Washington Democratic elector said he might cast his ballot for someone other Hillary Clinton. This has been mostly forgotten in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory.

Another thing that’s been forgotten, maybe because of the spectacle or the curiosity factor surrounding Mike Padden’s vote 40 years ago, is the reason why he did it.

Padden says it was an “opportunity to cast a vote for Governor Reagan and highlight his strong commitment to the pro-life cause … I had come out of the pro-life cause and also had been very active in Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign in Spokane County.”

This was just a few years after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision had changed the legal landscape for abortion in this country. In a prepared statement that Padden had with him on Dec.13, 1976 (a copy of which now resides in the Washington State Archives), he cited that landmark case:

“This brings me to the reason why I have cast my electoral vote for Ronald Reagan for President and Robert Dole for Vice-President. Both individuals have publicly supported a constitutional Amendment which would write into our constitution as the law of the land protection for those unborn human beings whose destruction has been given legal sanctions by the Jan. 22, 1973 decisions of the Supreme Court.”

Washington state has a long history of individualism in politics and numerous elected officials (and voters) who have organically veered from “traditional” party positions. Think of Dan Evans, three-term Republican governor who’s considered an environmentalist and who’s in favor of a state income tax; or Democratic Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who was hawkish enough to be recruited (unsuccessfully) by President Nixon to head the Defense Department, and who was known as the “Senator from Boeing” for his tireless efforts on behalf of the aerospace company’s defense contracts.

But while Mike Padden’s electoral switch 40 years ago took a certain amount of audacity, David Ammons agrees that the action itself has overshadowed the substance of the intent.

“That’s not the part we think of him for,” Ammons said. “But certainly Padden is a Catholic, and very devout on that issue as well.”

Padden says the national media attention and the furor over his ballot lasted only a few weeks, and that he eventually got nice letters from Reagan campaign officials and even met Ronald Reagan, who thanked him in person.

Closer to home and in the immediate aftermath of his Reagan ballot, Padden did get pushback from Spokane County Republican Party Chair Homer Cunningham.

“The county chairman was a Ford guy, and he said, ‘Well, that’s it, Padden. You’ll never get elected to anything after that,’” Padden said. “Of course, I did get elected four years later and reelected a number of times.”

Also elected in 1980 was Ronald Reagan. Reagan carried Washington that year, and again in 1984. Mike Padden jokes that he was just “ahead of his time” by casting his ballot for Reagan in 1976.

Washington’s Democratic electors will meet this year at noon on Dec. 19 at the State Capitol to officially vote for their candidate Hillary Clinton because she won the popular vote in the Evergreen State. Washington’s Republican electors get to stay home again this year, which is something they’ve done every four years since 1988. Regardless of party affiliation, the event is free and open to the public.

David Ammons says that Governor Jay Inslee will likely make a few remarks, and Secretary of State Wyman will officially welcome the electors and the public.

“Then they’ll proceed to go through the voting, which is usually done by paper ballot, if you will, for president and vice president,” Ammons said. “So it normally is very rote and very dignified. It’s held in the State Reception Room, which is the grandest room at the Capitol. Party elders usually come, and campaign folks who are so excited. And there’s usually a ton of media just to capture this moment of our little part of this exercise of self-government.”

Does David Ammons expect any electoral drama in Olympia on Dec. 19?

“I think it will just be nicely dressed Democrats coming to enjoy a little silver lining behind the dark cloud,” he said.

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