Supreme Court to weigh state’s actions against rogue electors

These three citizens contend the Constitution allowed them to put country ahead of party.

Democratic presidential elector Bret Chiafalo stands outside the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle before a hearing in December 2016. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

Democratic presidential elector Bret Chiafalo stands outside the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle before a hearing in December 2016. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday, May 13, in the case of three Washington citizens who contend presidential electors can, under the Constitution, back the candidate of their choice rather than the one who wins the state’s popular vote.

Everett resident Bret Chiafalo, Esther John of Seattle and Levi Guerra of Warden were the “faithless” Washington electors fined $1,000 by the secretary of state for not keeping their pledge to back Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The three electors fought their fines, contending the civil penalty infringed on their constitutional rights to free speech, which allowed them to vote their conscience as members of the Electoral College.

“At the end of the day we were trying to put country ahead of party,” Chiafalo said Monday. “We were exercising the responsibility given to us by the Constitution.”

A year ago, in an 8-1 decision, the state Supreme Court upheld the fines, concluding the state is empowered under the U.S. Constitution not only to draw up the rules for electors but also to determine how to enforce them.

Chiafolo and his co-defendants seek a reversal of that ruling.

At issue is the extent of a state’s power to enforce how a presidential elector casts his or her ballot.

If justices side with faithless electors, it could inject a degree of havoc and uncertainty when the Electoral College convenes in December to formally select the next president. And it could energize a movement that wants to require that U.S. presidents be elected based on results of the popular vote nationally, not ballots cast by the 538 state-appointed members of the Electoral College.

Chiafalo, Guerra and John signed pledges to cast their votes for the party’s nominee, Clinton, if she won the popular vote in Washington, which she did. In Washington, Clinton received about 521,000 more votes than Donald Trump. Nationally, she received about 2.8 million more votes.

But they didn’t keep their word, backing former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican they considered a better choice than Trump.

What they did wasn’t a surprise. Chiafalo helped found Hamilton Electors, which at the time was conducting a national campaign to derail Trump’s presidency by getting electors of both parties to break their pledges and vote for a different Republican to be the nation’s leader. If they could deny Trump a majority, the U.S. House of Representative would choose the president.

The plan failed. Ten electors did vote for someone other than Clinton or Trump, and, according to The Washington Post, five presidential elections have been decided by smaller margins. The most recent occurred in 2000, when President George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by five electoral votes.

Washington fined its faithless electors, while Colorado compelled its three rogue electors to cast their ballots for Clinton, the winner of that state’s popular vote. Those electors sued, arguing it was unconstitutional to force them to vote for Clinton. Their case is also getting heard Wednesday.

Attorneys for all six electors argue that while states can set rules for appointing electors, the Constitution conveys upon electors “the power ‘to vote’ free of state control.”

If a state had such power, it could forbid electors from voting for candidates who don’t release their tax returns or fail to take a particular position deemed important by legislators, they argue. But the Constitution denies such power to the states, they contend.

“Our forebears were not chumps,” they wrote in a May 1 brief.

Accepting electors’ argument that the state’s power ends when an elector is appointed opens the door to “bizarre and dangerous consequences,” attorneys for the state of Washington contend in their brief. “It would mean that elections for the most powerful office in our government are and always have been hollow exercises, because electors have unfettered discretion regardless of the outcome.”

They wrote it would mean that a state could not remove or sanction an elector “even if it learned that he was offering his vote to the highest bidder, was being blackmailed by a foreign power, or had lied about his eligibility to serve.”

Justices should “reaffirm the Constitution’s — and our society’s — enduring vision of the limited role of electors,” state attorneys wrote. “Theirs are not the only votes that matter.”

A ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could arrive by the end of June or early July, when the current term ends.

In Washington, fines won’t be a problem in this year’s presidential elections. A 2019 law eliminated them. Now, if an elector breaks their pledge, they will be removed and an alternate elector appointed to take their place.


In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing editor@bothell-reporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.bothell-reporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

More in News

File photo
State Supreme Court strikes down $30 car-tab initiative

Justices unanimously agreed that voter-approved Initiative 976 is unconstitutional.

A suspect in a carjacking hangs almost 60 feet up in a tree after climbing it to avoid police on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020 near Mill Creek, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
After gunfire, Bothell carjacking suspect climbs a tree

He allegedly passed a trooper at 114 mph on a motorcycle, crashed, stole a car, fled gunshots and climbed 60 feet.

Hilary Franz (left) and Sue Kuehl Pederson
Wildfires, forest health are key issues in race to lead DNR

Republican Sue Kuehl Pederson is challenging incumbent Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.

power grid electricity power lines blackouts PG&E (Shutterstock)
State extends moratorium on some electric, gas shutoffs

Investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities in WA can’t disconnect customers through April.

Cecil Lacy Jr. (Family photo)
Court: New trial in case of man who told police ‘Can’t breathe’

Cecil Lacy Jr. of Tulalip died in 2015 while in police custody.

A Sept. 10 satellite image shows smoke from U.S. wildfires blanketing the majority of the West Coast. (European Space Agency)
University of Washington professors talk climate change, U.S.-China relations

Downside for climate policy supporters is it can risk alienating moderate or right-leaning voters.

Sightseers at a Snoqualmie Falls viewpoint adjacent to the Salish Lodge & Spa on Feb. 19, 2020. Natalie DeFord/staff photo
25 COVID cases linked to Salish Lodge

Public Health is urging anyone who visited the lodge to monitor for symptoms or get tested.

The nose of the 500th 787 Dreamliner at the assembly plant in Everett on Sept. 21, 2016. (Kevin Clark / Herald, file)
Report: Boeing will end 787 Dreamliner production in Everett

Boeing declined comment on a Wall Street Journal story saying the passenger jet’s assembly will move to South Carolina.

Car hits hydrant and power pole in Bothell

Luckily there were no injuries

Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo
Surge in consumer spending eases state budget challenges

A jump in tax collections cuts a projected $9 billion shortfall in half, acccording to new forecast.

Rendering of the completed boathouse. Courtesy photo/City of Kenmore
Kenmore project will bring public rowing to Rhododendron Park

The project will create a boathouse for both public and school district use

High speed rail and hub cities explored in Cascadia Corridor study

A new paper outlines a potential plan for the region.