Wednesday, May 13, 2020
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Chiafalo v. Washington and Colorado v. Baca, both testing whether and how states can control the votes of their presidential electors. Both cases involved "faithless electors"--electors who, in violation of state law, voted for individuals in the 2016 election who did not win the state's popular vote.
Maybe the only thing that was clear from the arguments today is that . . . nothing is clear. Text doesn't answer the question. Original understanding is equivocal. Past practice can be manipulated by both sides. Even the practical effect of a ruling either way is uncertain, or at least reasonably disputed. The Court searched for a limiting principle from both sides, in both cases, but came up blank.
All this indeterminacy only served to illustrate how screwed up our system of electing a president really is. As the arguments revealed, that system, the Electoral College, appears to have no firm or settled basis in any variety of democratic theory, or any theory of federalism. If it did, we'd at least have some guidance on the question.
Given the indeterminacy, we might expect the Court to punt on cases like these under the political question doctrine. Indeed, the issue bears a remarkable resemblance to partisan gerrymandering--no settled constitutional test, could benefit or harm either major party--on which the Court declined to rule most recently in Rucho v. Common Cause. If anything, the text, history, and precedent are even less determinate here than in partisan gerrymandering cases.
So: Look for the Court to leave things as they are--to allow the states to control their electors, or allow the states to set them free, as the states wish. As Justice Kagan asked, "What would you say if I said that if I think that there's silence, the best thing to do is leave it to the states and not impose any constitutional requirement on them?"