State May Punish “Faithless Electors,” Wash. Sup. Ct. Rules

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Today’s decision (In the Matter of Guerra) relies heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ray v. Blair (1952), which upheld a state requirement that electors pledge to support the party National Convention’s nominees: “Where a state authorizes a party to choose its nominees for elector in a party primary and to fix the qualifications for the candidates, we see no federal constitutional objection to the requirement of this pledge.” The Washington court summarized:

Article II, section 1 of the United States Constitution grants to the states plenary power to direct the manner and mode of appointment of electors to the Electoral College. We hold that the fine imposed pursuant to RCW 29A.56.340 falls within that authority. We further hold nothing under article II, section 1 or the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution grants to the electors absolute discretion in casting their votes and the fine does not interfere with a federal function. Finally, an elector acts under the authority of the State, and no First Amendment right is violated when a state imposes a fine based on an elector’s violation of his pledge.

Justice Gonzalez dissented:

The State’s authority to penalize its electors is an issue of first impression. Ray v. Blair concerns only the broad authority to appoint electors. The Court addressed the constitutionality of requiring electors to make a pledge but did not address the elector’s discretion. In dissent, Justice Robert H. Jackson raised concerns about an elector’s freedom to exercise independent judgment as originally intended. I share his concerns. He opined, “No one faithful to our history can deny that the plan originally contemplated, what is implicit in its text, that electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the [individuals] best qualified for the Nation’s highest offices.”

There is a meaningful difference between the power to appoint and the power to control. “A power not expressly listed [in the Constitution] is granted only if incidental to an enumerated power.” The Constitution provides the State only with the power to appoint, leaving the electors with the discretion to vote their conscience. See U.S. Const. art. II, § 1. Therefore, the State cannot impose a civil penalty on electors who do not vote for the candidates nominated by their party.


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