At least three Republican electors say they may not support their party's presidential ticket when the Electoral College meets in December to formally elect the new president, escalating tensions within the GOP and adding a fresh layer of intrigue to the final weeks of the White House race.
The electors - all are supporters of former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul - told The Associated Press they are exploring options should Mitt Romney win their states. They expressed frustration at how Republican leaders have worked to suppress Paul's conservative movement and his legion of loyal supporters.
"They've never given Ron Paul a fair shot, and I'm disgusted with that. I'd like to show them how disgusted I am," said Melinda Wadsley, an Iowa mother of three who was selected a Republican elector earlier this year. She said she believes Paul is the better choice and noted that the Electoral College was founded with the idea that electors wouldn't just mimic the popular vote.
The defection of multiple electors would be unprecedented in the last 116 years of U.S. politics. And it would raise the remote possibility that the country could even end up with a president and vice president from different parties.
If Romney prevailed in an extremely close presidential election, for example, defections could deprive him of the Electoral College majority needed to secure the presidency. That would throw the presidential election into the U.S. House for the first time in nearly two centuries. The Senate would elect the vice president if neither running mate got a majority of the electoral votes. If Republicans retained control of the House, and with the each state delegation getting a single vote, Romney probably would prevail. But if the Senate remained in Democratic hands, Vice President Joe Biden would be the favorite.
Because so-called faithless electors are rare, the position of elector is largely viewed as symbolic. Each party chooses people to serve as electors in the 50 states, and electors from the winning party convene in each state capital in December to officially select the president and vice president.
As Paul supporters fought for more prestigious delegate slots during state-level conventions this year, they also quietly accrued electors - some in Democratic states likely to be won by President Barack Obama, but also in a handful in states that Romney could take.
In Nevada, for example, Paul's forces seized control of the state convention and won a majority of delegates. They also placed four Paul supporters among the state's six electors.
The electors said they have had no organized discussion over how to cast their electoral votes and there have been no efforts by the campaigns to get them to vote for either Paul or Romney.
Nevada's electors are approaching their duties in different ways.
Jesse Law, an elector and Paul supporter, said he may have qualms with Romney but has always intended to cast his electoral vote for the party nominee.
"I just want to beat Obama," Law said.
But Ken Eastman may not cast his Nevada electoral vote for Romney, if the former Massachusetts governor wins the state. Eastman said he wants to explore options with Republican leaders in Clark County, a group now dominated by Paul supporters.
"I'm undecided at this point," Eastman said, adding that he's "pretty disgusted" with the national Republican Party and how it has worked to suppress Paul's grassroots movement. He said the GOP has not been open to an influx of people with different ideas.
In Texas, elector Billie Zimmerman said she sees Paul as the only candidate able to save the country. She considers Romney and running mate Paul Ryan to be just another couple of Republicans who will disappoint her, and she called the GOP convention a "shocking display of deception and treachery and cheating."
Zimmerman said she hasn't decided how she'll cast her electoral vote.
Along with the three electors looking at alternatives, Nevada GOP elector Ken Searles said he may vote for Paul as a protest, so long as his vote wouldn't change the outcome of the election. Another elector, Kathleen Miller in Alaska, said she is planning to vote for Romney but left open the possibility of a Paul vote if the outcome of the election was certain and Republican leaders continued what she called "shenanigans."
About half the states, including Nevada, have state laws requiring electors to follow the popular vote. Nevada's statute carries no punishment, and it's unclear how it would be enforced. Election officials said they may turn to the courts to enforce the law if an elector strayed.
Tensions between the Republican Party and Paul supporters have been escalating for much of the year. At the Republican National Convention last month, Paul supporters booed as the party adopted new rules to make it more difficult for similar insurgent campaigns to gain traction in the future.
Paul has not endorsed Romney. And his aides did not respond to requests for comment on the possible defection of GOP electors.
The Romney campaign sidestepped questions about the electors, with political director Rich Beeson saying Republicans "are united to defeat President Obama to get our economy back on track and Americans working again."
Often chosen during the convention process, electors are designated by each party to cast votes if their presidential candidate wins the state. A presidential candidate needs 270 of the 538 electoral votes to win.
The last time the House determined the presidential outcome was in 1825, when it selected John Quincy Adams after none of the four candidates won a majority of the electoral votes.
There have been a handful of faithless electors in recent years. In 2004, one Minnesota elector voted for John Edwards for president instead of his top-of-the-ticket running mate John Kerry. Many observers assumed that was simply a mistake. The Minnesota vote was done secretly, and no one ever claimed responsibility.
A District of Columbia elector abstained in 2000 to protest the lack of congressional representation for the district.
The last time multiple electors defected was in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan was the presidential candidate of both the Democratic Party and the People's Party, with both parties choosing different vice presidential picks. Twenty-seven electors in that race chose the People's Party ticket, even though it didn't win the popular vote.