Justices rule states can bind presidential electors' votes

A police officer walks outside the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Unlike what happened in December 2016, there will be no Electoral College presidential votes this year for Faith Spotted Eagle emanating from the Washington state delegation. Not after the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Monday affirming the power of states to compel electors to vote for the candidate their state has pledged to support.

The decision is timely and appropriate, given that the next presidential election in this greatly divided country is less than four months away and could easily have been doused in turmoil if a close race were to turn on a handful of so-called faithless electors.

“In a moment of deep uncertainty about making the 2020 presidential election work,” said Bloomberg syndicated columnist Noah Feldman, “the U.S. Supreme Court has struck a blow for stability and common sense.”

All nine justices spurned the claim that an elector has the constitutional right to ignore directions from his or her state and vote for whomever he or she chooses — a normally rare occurrence that happened an unheard-of seven times following Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Four of those rogue electors were from Washington; pledged to support Democrat Hillary Clinton, three voted for retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in hopes of persuading other electors to abandon their pledged candidate and deny Republican Trump the presidency. The fourth voted for Spotted Eagle.

“Electors are not free agents,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. The Constitution gives all power to the states and none to the electors, she noted.

The court settled two cases Monday: Chiafalo v. Washington, focusing on the three Washington defectors who voted for Powell; and Colorado Department of State vs. Baca, involving a would-be rogue from Colorado whose attempt to vote for Ohio Gov. John Kasich was invalidated by state law.

Washington’s 12 electors had signed a pledge to support the candidate with the most votes, who turned out to be Clinton. The rogue voters were fined $1,000 under state law, and the three Powell voters went to court — with an admitted overarching goal of destroying the Electoral College, yet another source of division that comes to the U.S. forefront every four years.

States can tell electors “that they have no ground for reversing the vote of millions of its citizens,” Kagan wrote. Such an order by a state “accords with the Constitution — as well as with the trust of a nation that here, we the people rule.”

Paul Smith, an election law expert with the Campaign Legal Center who talked with the Los Angeles Times on Monday, spoke favorably of the ruling. “Voters should go to the polls with the confidence that their vote will count and that their political system will be free from corruption,” he said. “However far from perfect the current system may be, the chaos of an unbound Electoral College would have been even worse.”

There are 538 Electoral College votes. A clear majority of 270 wins the election, and the possibility of faithless electors creating turmoil is very real. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush received 271 electoral votes to 266 for Democrat Al Gore after several weeks of controversy involving recounts in Florida. One elector from Washington, D.C., left her ballot blank that year.

Even the Washington plaintiffs’ lawyer, Lawrence Lessig, saw a silver lining. “Obviously, we don’t believe the court has interpreted the Constitution correctly,” the Harvard law professor said. “But we are happy that we have achieved our primary objective — this uncertainty has been removed. That is progress.”

Meanwhile, Spotted Eagle will always be able to boast that she was the first Native American and the second woman in history (Clinton was the first) to receive an Electoral College vote for president. She’s a Native American activist and educator from South Dakota who holds a master’s degree in educational psychology and counseling. A staunch opponent of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines, she has twice unsuccessfully run for the South Dakota House of Representatives. In her early 70s, she is younger than Trump and Joe Biden, this year’s presumptive Democrat nominee.

Perhaps she’d make a good president. But that wasn’t the point.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Bruce Drysdale.