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Chiafalo v. Washington

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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioners, who were Democratic electors, were fined by the State of Washington after they pledged to support Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College but decided to cast their ballots for someone else.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Constitution gives States broad power over electors and give electors themselves no rights.

Facts.

Three Washington electors violated their pledges in the 2016 presidential election. In 2016, Washington’s voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for President. The State thus appointed as its electors the nominees of the Washington State Democratic Party. Among these Democratic electors were petitioners Peter Chiafalo, and two others. All three pledged to support Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College. But they decided to case their ballots for someone else as that vote approached, in the hope that they could encourage other electors to followed their example. Eventually candidate Trump became the President. The State fined the electors for breaking their pledges to support the same candidate its voters had.

Issue.

May a State penalize an elector for breaking his pledge and voting for someone other than the presidential candidate who won his State’s popular vote?

Held.

Yes, no language in the Constitution prohibits a State from appointing only electors committed to vote for a party’s presidential election. Nor did the Nation’s history suggest such a bar. History teaches that the electors were expected to support the party nominees as far back as the earliest contested presidential elections. This longstanding practice must be deferred and a State may fine electors for breaking his pledge and voting for someone other than the presidential candidate who won his State’s popular vote.

Concurrence.

Justice Thomas

While the majority correctly determined that States have the power to require Presidential electors to vote for the candidate chosen by the people of the State, that power does not come from the Constitution’s specific provision. Instead, all powers that the Constitution neither delegates to the Federal Government nor prohibits the States are controlled by the people of each State.

Discussion.

The Constitution’s appointments power gives the States far-reaching authority over presidential electors and each State may appoint electors in such manner as the Legislature may direct. The Court has interpreted this as conveying the broadest power of determination over who becomes an elector and the power to appoint an elector includes power to condition his appointment – that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect. A State can require, for instance, that an elector live in the State or qualify as a regular voter during the relevant time period and a State can insist that the elector pledge to cast his Electoral College ballot for his party’s presidential nominee, thus tracking the State’s popular vote. Moreover, nothing in the Constitution expressly prohibits States from taking away presidential electors’ voting discretion as Washington does.


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