The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in two related constitutional cases resulting from a failed attempt to force the 2016 presidential election into the U.S. House of Representatives where, in theory, another candidate other than Donald Trump could have been elected president.
As everyone learned in civics class, when Americans vote in a presidential election they are actually voting for a slate of “electors” who perform the constitutional duties of electing the president in a process known as the Electoral College.
After election night results indicated then-candidate Trump had won enough votes in the Electoral College to be declared the presidential victor (The Electoral College consists of 538 electors, and a majority of 270 votes is required to be declared a winner), a loosely organized initiative, dubbed the “Hamilton electors” or “faithless electors,” attempted to change the course of presidential history.
Here’s how it happened. A few electors in Colorado and Washington state who were pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton for president hoped to convince 37 Republican “electors” around the country to abandon their pledges to vote for Donald Trump – as their home state election results and law dictated – and cast their ballots instead for any other Republican. If successful, it would have denied Trump enough electoral votes to keep him from reaching 270. The method they chose to induce the necessary Republican defections was to lead by example. Instead of casting their ballots for Ms. Clinton, as they had pledged, they cast votes for third parties such as Gov. John Kasich.
If it had worked, the election would have instead been tossed to the U.S. House of Representatives, which under the Constitution would have voted for a President and Vice President from among the persons receiving votes from electors.
But the plan failed.
The country was spared the constitutional crisis of a manipulated Electoral College result because only a handful of “faithless electors” attempted to follow through with the plan. Ultimately, the Electoral College results were not affected and Trump’s election victory was sealed. However, in two states – Colorado and Washington – where electors attempted to vote contrary to their pledged vote, state laws prohibiting such conduct were enforced against them, resulting in legal challenges from the faithless electors in those states.
The constitutional question the justices grappled with today concerned whether states have the right to enforce the electors’ pledges to vote for a certain candidate or not. The electors argued the Framers of the Constitution intended for them to have the discretion to vote any way they choose. On the other side, Colorado and Washington argued that, historically, the states’ right to appoint electors also comes with the right to remove them for good cause.
The justices’ questions did not reveal any consensus on the court as to how the issue will be decided. Hopefully, the court will reach a decision that ensures that the continuing integrity of presidential elections. A decision is expected sometime this summer.
The cases are Chiafalo v. Washington and Colorado Dept. of State v. Baca.