The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that US states can punish presidential electors who ignore the popular vote in their state and instead back a candidate of their own choosing.
The ruling against “faithless electors” — those who do not cast their votes for the presidential candidate who won their state — reduces the likelihood of that phenomenon in the 2020 election.
In the US system, the president is not elected by direct popular vote. Instead, each state chooses electors who in turn select the president in the Electoral College. In practice, these electors usually vote in line with the popular vote in their state.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 election, 10 electors attempted to disregard the results of the popular vote in their state, with seven successfully casting votes. Though the effort had no impact on the final result, it was the largest “faithless” vote tally in a century.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states could punish such electors, including by fining or simply de-selecting them, thereby nullifying their vote.
“[E]lectors are not free agents; they are to vote for the candidate whom the state’s voters have chosen,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, an appointee of Barack Obama, delivering the court’s opinion.
The decision came after three faithless electors from the 2016 election challenged $1,000 fines imposed on them by Washington state after they failed to vote for Hillary Clinton, who won that state.
The electors instead voted for Colin Powell, the former secretary of state under George W Bush, in an effort to encourage electors in states won by Mr Trump to also change their votes. If they had succeeded in depriving Mr Trump of a majority in the Electoral College, then the vote would have gone to the US House of Representatives.
A parallel case, also decided on Monday, involved three electors from Colorado, including one who had voted for John Kasich — a moderate Republican who Mr Trump defeated in the primaries — instead of Mrs Clinton.
In almost every state, the party whose nominee wins the popular vote chooses a slate of electors. Most states also require those electors to take a pledge to vote in line with the popular vote, and a subset of those states also impose sanctions. The most common sanction is removal.