Politics & Government

‘Faithless electors’ get their day in court, but final rulings might wait

The presidential election ended months ago, but the fight over so-called “faithless electors” is far from over.

A Friday hearing in Tacoma was the latest chapter in a rare debate over election procedure. At bottom, the question is straightforward: Does the state of Washington have the legal authority to fine four Democratic electors who broke with tradition by casting ballots for someone other than the party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton?

The fines — $1,000 apiece — were levied in December by the Secretary of State’s office against Bret Chiafalo of Everett, Levi Guerra of Vancouver, Esther John of Seattle, and Robert Satiacum of the Puyallup Tribe. The first three cast electoral ballots for Colin Powell, while Satiacum voted for environmental activist Faith Spotted Eagle. The electors are challenging the state’s authority to impose the fine.

Chiafalo, the only elector to appear at Friday’s hearing, co-founded a group last year called the “Hamilton Electors,” named for founding father Alexander Hamilton.

The decision to break with tradition was a direct result of the election of President Donald Trump, Chiafalo said.

“Hamilton Electors started on election night,” he said. “Hamilton says the Electoral College is supposed to look out for any candidate who is unqualified and has ties to foreign powers and is a demagogue.”

While the electors have raise arguments about constitutionality, those subjects weren’t on the table Friday.

While the electors have raised arguments about the constitutionality of Washington’s law, those subjects weren’t on the table Friday. Administrative law Judge Robert Krabill noted that he lacked the authority to address such questions and said he would limit his decision to whether the state followed the law when it imposed the fines. A potential outcome of that approach would send the key issues to a state appeals court.

Callie Castillo of the state attorney general’s office underlined the point in her statement to the court and in a written brief, but she touched on the constitutional issues all the same.

Electors, selected by their respective political parties, aren’t voters in the strict sense. They represent the state’s voters, and they sign a pledge to vote for the candidate nominated by voters from their party. The law imposing the fine for failure to do so was passed in 1976, after Washington’s first faithless elector, Mike Padden (now a state senator) cast an electoral ballot for Ronald Reagan instead of the party’s nominee, incumbent President Gerald Ford.

Castillo called the fine “a consequence for violating the state pledge,” and said the secretary of state followed the guidelines in state law.

Sumeer Singla, the attorney representing Chiafalo, Guerra and John, said the state’s fine runs afoul of the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which sets Electoral College rules, he argued.

“Being fined for exercising their 12th Amendment right is unconstitutional,” Singla said.

Chiafo explained that his decision to go rogue was not a lark or a whim, or an anti-Hillary Clinton vote. While he called the Electoral College “an anachronism that we need to get rid of,” he said he believed he was following the Constitution rather than flouting it.

The hearing lasted an hour before Krabill wrapped up, saying he would issue a written order next week.

Afterward, Chiafalo explained that his decision to go rogue was not a lark or a whim, or an anti-Hillary Clinton vote. While he called the Electoral College “an anachronism that we need to get rid of,” he said he believed he was following the Constitution rather than flouting it.

He added that the electors chose Powell, a Republican as a symbolic gesture to the state’s Republican voters, to demonstrate that their decision went beyond partisanship. If Clinton had prevailed, or if a more conventional candidate such as Mitt Romney been the Republican victor, Chiafalo said he likely wouldn’t have taken such a drastic step.

“We chose to put country before party because of the emergency threat Donald Trump poses,” he said.

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