Supreme Court Decision: Chiafalo et al. v Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments for Chiafalo et al. v Washington | Photo from C-Span

On July 6, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Chiafalo et al. v. Washington that a state can constitutionally enforce a presidential elector’s pledge to support his/her nominee and the  state’s popular vote. The decision of this case was unanimous with a 9-0 vote. Justice Kagan, in the majority opinion, observed that “the states have devised mechanisms to ensure that the electors” vote for the citizens’ preference, Chiafalo et al. v Washington 591 U.S.1. (2020). The court used precedent in Ray v. Blair, as well as Article II, and the Twelfth Amendment to affirm the decision of the Washington Supreme Court. This ensures that states can sanction electors to vote for whom they pledge for and in favor of the state’s popular vote. 

In Ray v. Blair, the court upheld the ruling requiring presidential electors to pledge a vote for their political party before being certified as an elector. For this reason, the court rejected the argument that the Constitution “demands absolute freedom for the elector to vote his own choice.” Ray v Blair, 343 U.S. 214. 228 (1952), in other words, electors must pledge to be hired.

Chiafalo, however, required the enforcement of the pledges involved in Ray. Because electors agreed to vote a certain way as a condition of their appointment, the court ruled that deviance from the pledge is punishable through fines. 

In Chiafalo, the state of Washington subjected electors to a fine of $1000 or more for an elector who did not vote for their pledged nominee, or if they voted  in opposition to the state’s popular vote. Peter B. Chiafalo, Levi Jennet Guerra, and Esther Virginia John were Washington’s state electors. In 2016, they were supposed to vote for Hilary Clinton and Tim Kaine, but they instead voted for Colin Powell. The state of Washington then fined the electors for failing to vote for their pledge and the state’s popular vote. The electors challenged the fine, stating that it was a violation of their First Amendment rights. 

In Kagan’s opinion of the court, he cited Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution:

“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 Elector” (U.S. Const. Article II, § 1, Clause 2). 

… alongside 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 of 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” (U.S. Const. Amend.XII).

The court presumed from the Constitution and Twelfth Amendment that states have the “broad power over electors,” and these electors do not have any constitutional right to vote as they please. Chiafalo et al. v Washington 591 U.S.9. (2020). The states are granted authority to appoint electors and, in doing so, may impose conditions like monetary fines. The court upheld “Washington’s penalty-backed pledge law” for reasons much like those given in Ray. Chiafalo et al. v Washington 591 U.S.1. (2020). The Constitution’s text and history both support a state’s ability to enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party nominee and a state’s popular choice for President. 

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch joined in writing a concurring opinion. They recognize instead that “all powers that the Constitution neither delegates to the Federal Government nor prohibits to the States are controlled by the people of each State.” Chiafalo et al. v Washington 591 U.S.22. (2020). Justices Thomas and Gorsuch believe that the Constitution does not explicitly define the states’ power to enforce an elector to vote for a certain presidential candidate.  They disagree with the others on the grounds that Article II does not contain the language that gives the power to enforce elector voting. Instead, they argue that the Tenth Amendment enumerates any powers not listed in the Constitution to the states, including the power to fine electors.

In summary, the court decided unanimously that states could use fines to sanction the votes of their electors. The majority justified this ruling using Article II and the Twelfth Amendment, or, in the concurring opinion, the Tenth Amendment. 


Bio picture

Maite Guerra is in her final year at University of Las Vegas, Nevada where she is majoring in both Political Science and Criminal Justice. She is involved with the ACLU of Nevada where she is volunteering to understand policy and human rights issues. She also worked at a non-profit organization called the Asian Community Development Council as an Immigration legal intern. Her responsibilities were helping both English and Spanish clients apply for American citizenship. She also is involved in student government where she got the opportunity to lobby for bill H.R. 4674, The College Affordability Act in Washington D.C. She is passionate about human rights, public policy, legislative affairs, and international relations. After graduation Maite plans to enter a graduate Masters or PhD program in either human rights or political science.

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