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Presidential Elector Discretion: The Originalist Evidence
Rob Natelson

[Editor's note: For this guest post and a subsequent one, we again welcome Rob Natelson, Professor of Law (ret.), The University of Montana; Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence, Independence Institute, Heartland Institute, and Montana Policy Institute.  Regular readers know Professor Natelson as one of the nation's leading originalist scholars.]

Colorado went Democrat in the 2016 presidential election. But three of Colorado’s Democratic presidential electors wanted to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton. Two eventually cast ballots for Clinton under court order, while one—not a party to the court proceedings—opted for Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican. After this elector voted, state officials, acting pursuant to a judicial interpretation of state lawvoided his ballot, removed him from office, and authorized the other electors to choose a replacement.

Washington State also went Democrat. Four electors committed to Clinton under state law voted for other people. The state recognized the validity of their vote, but imposed a $1000 fine on each “faithless elector.”

Claiming the mantle of originalism, these electors have labeled themselves “Hamilton Electors,” in commemoration of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist No. 68 (discussed below). Litigation in Colorado and Washington will determine whether they succeed in making their point. According to Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, who is among the lawyers representing them, the parties in the Colorado suit recently entered into a stipulation designed to facilitate Supreme Court review.

The Supreme Court has addressed a related issue before: In 1952 it upheld an Alabama law requiring a person seeking office as an elector to pledge to support the nominee of his party. Despite that precedent, though, there is strong evidence the Constitution’s original meaning supports the Hamilton Electors’ claim to independence. This posting collects much of that evidence.

At the outset, I should clarify that there are other considerations—not originalist in nature, or at least not entirely so—supporting the Hamilton Electors’ claims to voting discretion.

  • Colorado authorities removed an elector and arranged for appointment of his alleged successor on December 19, 2016. Yet the uniform day chosen by Congress for appointment of electors pursuant to Article II, Section 1, Clause 4 was November 8, not December 19. Colorado officials asserted they were merely declaring and filling a vacancy. But the “vacancy” arose only because officials declared it because the elector did not vote right.
  • The Electoral College is one of several entities that are not part of the federal government but on which the Constitution bestows important powers and duties. The Supreme Court calls these powers and duties “federal functions.” To the extent the Constitution devolves federal functions to states, state legislatures, and state officials, they act through the Constitution as direct agents of the people. They do not act by virtue of powers reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment. As a matter of constitutional principle, therefore, it is doubtful that state law can punish electors for exercise of a federal function.
  • Indeed, this deduction is supported by a long string of judicial holdings under Article V, which sets forth the Constitution’s amendment procedure. The courts have repeatedly held that states may not enforce laws to control the behavior of actors exercising federal functions in the amendment process.

This essay, however, focuses only on relevant evidence from the Founding.

Today the Electoral College is governed not entirely by the Constitution’s original language, but partly by the 12th amendment. That amendment was ratified in 1804 after political parties, and political control of electors, became the norm. Some argue that the 12th amendment embodies more control on elector discretion than the original language.

The weakness in this argument is that, while the 12th Amendment altered much, it did not substantively change the constitutional language most relevant to elector discretion. The original Constitution read:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors. . . The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.

The 12th amendment worked no change at all in the wording before the ellipses and very little in the rest. The blend now in effect reads:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors. . . The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves.

Standard rules of legal interpretation provide that, in absence of evidence to the contrary, when language does not change, meaning does not change. There may have been more party pressures on electors in 1804 than in 1788, but there is no evidence the 12th amendment altered electors’ freedom from legal pressures.

It follows that because relevant constitutional rules did not change, we are justified in consulting the usual sources for deducing the Constitution’s original meaning. As patrons of this site know, those sources include (among others) the words and structure of the constitutional text, accepted prior and contemporaneous practices and customs, and the constitutional debates. The constitutional debates include those during the framing and, preeminently, those during the ratification process.  Evidence from each of these categories appears below.

The Meaning of Key Terms in the Text. In both the original and 12th amendment versions of the text, the electors vote by ballot. There were then four methods of voting in common use: (1) viva voce (“by live voice”), (2) show of hands, (3) polling (in which voters filed past a registrar, verified their identity, and stated their preference), and (4) by ballot. The last invariably meant secret ballot—secrecy being the crucial distinction between that method of voting and the others. Hence in 1800, framer Charles Pinckney could say on the floor of the Senate, “[T]he Constitution expressly orders that the Electors shall vote by ballot; and we all know, that to vote by ballot is to vote secretly.”

Of course, the whole point of a secret ballot is to hide the elector’s choice to ensure that choice is free. State laws telling an elector how to vote are inconsistent with free choice; the ballot requirement therefore suggests that such laws are unconstitutional.

A second key word in both the original Constitution and the 12th Amendment is elector. Eighteenth century general dictionaries define an elector as a person who does the choosing. For example, Nathan Bailey’s 1783 dictionary defined an elector as “a chuser.” The first entry for “elector” in the 1785 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was, “He that has a vote in the choice of any officer.” Other dictionaries featured kindred definitions.

Eighteenth century legal dictionaries did not define “elector,” but they did describe “election”—and with even clearer implications. Giles Jacob’s law dictionary, the most popular of its kind in America, said of “Election” that it “Is when a man is left to his own free will to take or do one thing or another, which he pleases.” Wording very similar to this appears in other law dictionaries.

Constitutional Structure. Article II of the Constitution authorized states to “appoint” electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Yet it contained no language empowering states to control electors once appointed. The argument for state control is therefore necessarily that state control of electors is incidental to the appointment power.

Under the legal doctrine of the founding era (as today), to be incidental to a principal (express) power, a power must (among other requirements) be of lesser importance than the principal. (See also Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the court in NFIB v. Sebelius.) This probably disqualifies control as a mere incident of appointment. Other parts of Article II support this inference. Specifically:

  • The president’s power to “appoint . . . Judges of the supreme Court” has never been interpreted to carry authority to control their decisions. A prerogative so weighty cannot be implied; it would have to be supported by express wording.
  • The president appoints executive branch officials, but his prerogative to supervise them is not left to implication. The president receives his supervisory authority in the Take Care Clause, in the commissioning power (generally accompanied during the Founding with detailed instructions), in the right to demand reports from cabinet members, and — according to some (although I disagree) — in the Executive Vesting Clause. The absence of provisions authorizing states to dictate their electors’ votes is further evidence the power does not exist.

Contemporaneous Practice. Another important source for the Constitution’s original meaning consists of public practices of the time. Relevant here was the choice of Scottish members of the British Parliament. They were not directly elected, as in England, but elected by “commissioners” chosen for that purpose by voters or by local governments.

A Scottish commissioner could be required to take an oath prescribed by parliamentary statute. By that oath he swore he had not received anything of value—apparently including his position as elector (“Office, Place, Employment”)—in exchange for his vote. In other words, a Scottish elector’s choice was not to be directed by the locality that sent him.

Under the 1776 Maryland constitution, the state senate was elected by electors chosen by the voters. Electors were required to swear that they would “elect without favor, affection, partiality, or prejudice, such persons for Senators, as they, in their judgment and conscience, believe best qualified for the office.”

These two then-prominent precedents suggest a public understanding that electors’ discretion would be unfettered.

[Editor's note: a second post will discuss evidence from the Constitutional Convention and the ratifying debates.]