Review of Chiafalo and Baca: The “Faithless Electors” Supreme Court Cases
The role the Electoral College plays in American life has confused and confounded many, especially since the U.S. Presidential election of 2016, when the winner of the national popular vote, Hillary Clinton, actually lost the election to President Donald Trump by vote of State-appointed electors in the Electoral College.
The Electoral College was intended by the Founding Fathers to be a buffer between the passions of the masses and the rule by edict of only an elite few, but how much of a buffer and how autonomous the electors within the Electoral College actually are was never fully addressed by the Supreme Court until its decisions late this term in Chiafalo v. Washington, 19-465, (Decided July 6, 2020) and Colorado Dept. of State v. Baca, 18-1173 (Decided July 6, 2020). (The Supreme Court issued its full opinion in Chiafalo).
As a country, we have grown accustomed to watching the national news on election night as states are called for each candidate, and electoral vote tallies are updated to show to us who is “winning” the election when, in reality, all of this is a mere projection, as none of those “electoral votes” are assured, or even cast, until the electors actually cast those votes at a time and place long after November 4.
So who are these “electors” who vote in the Electoral College? Are they “rubber stamps” bound to follow the popular vote of the State who appointed them? Can the State require the electors to sign a pledge to vote consistent with their state’s popular vote winner? If so, can the State punish that elector, including removal as an elector if they violate that pledge and vote for someone else? Or is an elector more of a “free agent” in the vein of those elected as State representatives in Congress? Congressional representatives, of course, are not bound by the State or its citizens’ desires when casting a vote in Congress (though they are held to account for their votes in the next congressional election). If electors are not to use their own judgment, then why does the Constitution call them an “elector” (which connotes some amount of discretion) instead of a delegate, or a proxy, or any number of other terms that would signify a lack of individual authority? Or, more simply, why have electors at all?
In Chiafalo and Baca, electors in Washington and Colorado were appointed by their respective States and were required to make, and did make a pledge when they were appointed as electors to vote consistent with the popular vote of their states. Yet, when the time came to cast their vote in the Electoral College, they didn’t vote consistent with the winner of the State’s popular vote as they had pledged. They voted for another candidate instead, forever earning the moniker of “faithless electors”. They weren’t the first electors ever to have done that. In fact, it has happened 180 times in our country’s history. The question presented to the Court then was – can they do that?
As it turns out the answer isn’t that simple. To understand how we got here, you need to go back to the Founding Fathers and the debates that forged the U.S. Constitution and the country itself. Let’s start with the misconception that the Constitution provides for a direct popular election of the President by the vote of its citizens. It doesn’t. At the birth of our country, there was fierce debate over who would elect our President. One group argued for a free and democratic vote, where the (white) (male) citizens directly chose their nation’s leader based upon a direct popular vote. Another group, more skeptical about the passions (and frankly, the ability) of the masses, called instead for a group of wise men to be tasked with choosing the President. This debate was resolved in an “eleventh hour” compromise at the close of the Constitutional Convention, which attempted to bridge the gap by expressly stating only:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States shall be appointed an Elector.
U.S. Constitution, Article II, §1, cl. 2. Originally, the Article continued on to describe the process for the vote, but that process was quickly found unworkable and the States scrapped it.
Instead, in 1804, the States replaced the process the electors were to follow with the Twelfth Amendment:
The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President…, they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to [Congress, where] the votes shall then be counted.
Yet even after this amendment, the Constitution remained silent as to what the electors’ role beyond merely casting their vote was to be.
In Chiafalo, the “faithless electors” argued that electors could vote for whomever they wished, based on three main arguments: (1) a textual argument that focused heavily on the word “elector”; (2) a historical argument based upon the fact that from early on there were electors who voted contrary to their state’s popular vote; and (3) the “federal function” argument, that once they had been appointed by the State as an elector, that the State no longer had the power to control their vote since they were now engaged a “federal function” of electing the President and Vice President. Central to their arguments was the concept that the right to vote inherently includes the discretion to choose whom they will vote for. And more, that an elector should not be subject to punishment by the State based upon how they cast their vote. While a State can set requirements for electors, i.e. that they be state residents, etc., the electors argued that those requirements end when it comes to the electors’ exercise of their appointed function - the vote. The faithless electors argued that electors were akin to legislators and that discretion by the voter was inherently part of the Electoral College process. Once the State appointed an elector, they argued, the State did not have the power to “stand over the shoulder” of the elector as they carried out their constitutional function of voting for President and Vice-President. Otherwise, why have electors? Why not have the States simply report who they had voted for?
The States countered that, consistent with Supreme Court precedent, along with the express power to appoint the electors, came with it the reciprocal and concurrent power to also remove the electors, and therefore States could set conditions of removal on its electors, including punishments for the way in which they vote, such as a pledge that they vote as the state’s voters had in the popular election or suffer a $1,000 fine. The States argued that this outcome was dictated by a plain textual reading that these powers had been delegated to the States, that the federal government has limited power and authority, and that any powers not expressly given to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution, remain forever within the States’ exclusive right to control.
The gravity of the question the Supreme Court faced in these cases was real. While the outcome of the 2016 election was not changed by these faithless electors’ actions, with our country so closely divided, it is quite possible that faithless electors could change the outcome of future elections. If the Court had decided that electors were “free agents” who, once appointed, could vote (or not vote) as they wish, then not only could an elector or group of electors “switch sides” and change the winner of the Presidential election, but also, if they instead chose not to vote, they could deny both candidates the 270 votes necessary to win the election, and the matter would be sent to the House of Representatives for a “contingent election.” In a contingent election, each State must cast a single vote, and the victor of that vote becomes President regardless of who won the national popular vote or won States with more than 270 electoral votes combined.
As many publications recognized in advance of the Court’s ruling, this case legally presented a close call. The Founding Fathers provided little help, as even they couldn’t agree on the best approach – hence the compromise – and essentially just “kicked the can down the road.” A dispositive purely textual analysis (which this Court in its current make-up is increasingly fond of) was unavailing. The sole clear point is the unconditional power given to the States by the Constitution to choose the electors.
In deciding Chiafalo and Baca, the Supreme Court struck a pragmatic approach. Listening to the oral arguments, once could sense the concern with potential for “chaos” – the “chaos question” Justice Breyer called it - about the “chaos” that could ensue if the Supreme Court suddenly declared all electors to be “free agents” untethered from the will of the States and their citizens, to be instead courted and lobbied by nefarious actors from both home and abroad to vote for candidates regardless of who won the actual popular vote of each State’s elections. A fear that once may have seemed far-fetched, seems much more real today, after 2016, when foreign actors clearly engaged in attempts to manipulate the Presidential election. Consider, as the Court did, the risk of a foreign power hacking the computers of electors and blackmailing them to change their votes. Or the risk of a rich and elite few enticing electors to switch their votes for personal gain. It was these practical rather than legal concerns that seemed a loud and constant undercurrent of the entire debate.
In the end, the Justices, even the most fervent originalists among them, appeared to look more at how electors and the Electoral College is understood today than how the Founding Fathers had actually potentially intended it to work at the beginning.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan quoted James Madison’s maxim that “a regular course of practice” can “liquidate & settle the meaning of” disputed or indeterminate “terms & phrases.” She then reviewed that regardless of what may or may not have been envisioned as an elector’s role 200 years ago, the historical reality is that over time electors have evolved into merely a “rubber stamp” for the vote of the people within their States. (The faithless electors stressed that since the founding, electors have cast some 180 faithless votes for either President or Vice President without objection, but the Court shrugged off this inconvenient fact, concluding “that is 180 out of over 23,000” electoral votes cast).
For a Court that has tacked toward textualism and divining the original intent of the Founding Fathers, its decision as expressed in Chiafalo and Baca was instead a square and practical one. If a State holds an election for President, and the State declares “winner take all" for its electoral votes, then the State has the power to require the electors to vote as the States wants, including the power to condition their service and to mete out punishment on the electors if and when they do not comply. The country has evolved to a place where it is now assumed by the general public that their votes count, and that electors will simply carry out the proxy of the State who appoints them. To change that assumption now would not just upset the apple cart - but may well have destroyed it – disenfranchising millions of citizens and creating grave risks of political corruption that, in the Justices’ eyes, was too much to bear.