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Supreme Court Keeps Electoral College Voters In Check

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The Supreme Court decision on "faithless electors" means Washington state's law binding Electoral College voters stands. (steheap/Adobe Stock)
The Supreme Court decision on "faithless electors" means Washington state's law binding Electoral College voters stands. (steheap/Adobe Stock)
July 7, 2020

SEATTLE -- The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against rogue 2016 Electoral College voters in Washington state.

The unanimous decision upholds the Evergreen State's law to fine or remove "faithless electors" who refuse to cast their ballots for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in the state.

Paul Smith is vice president for litigation and strategy with the Campaign Legal Center, which filed a brief supporting Washington state's law. He said electors could be influenced in other ways if states weren't allowed to rein them in.

"There's no conflict-of-interest rules. There's no disclosure rules. They could be getting paid by the Russians. None of that would be illegal," Smith said. "And so, that was just one of the arguments that was made to the Court about how we really ought to keep the electors as mere placeholders, figureheads who just vote the way the state voted."

Thirty-two states have laws on faithless electors, but only 15 impose a penalty, such as a fine or removal. The Washington state elector involved in this case, Bret Chiafalo, said he wanted to expose the Electoral College as an undemocratic institution.

Wilfred Codrington, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said he agrees with Chiafalo's argument that the Electoral College is undemocratic. In the past two decades, for instance, two presidents have won the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote.

But Codrington said the justices didn't touch that issue, instead making a narrow decision about faithless electors.

"It patches up what was a crack in the Electoral College," Codrington said. "There's many arguments about the problems with the Electoral College, and this is one of them."

He said the justices understood that the November election likely is going to be contentious, especially with a pandemic raging.

"What we don't need is another curveball in our elections, and particularly this election," he said. "So they were trying to decrease the possibility of chaos in an already chaotic system."

Under Washington state law, the penalty for faithless electors back in 2016 was a $1,000 fine. Since then, lawmakers have strengthened the law so that electors are removed and replaced if they don't vote for the candidate who wins the state.

Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA