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What Does the Founding Era Evidence Say About How Presidential Electors Must Vote? – 4th in a Series on the Electoral College

What Does the Founding Era Evidence Say About How Presidential Electors Must Vote? – 4th in a Series on the Electoral College

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, litigation has erupted in Colorado over whether the state may dictate the vote of a presidential elector and remove him if he opts to vote otherwise. Similarly, a Washington State lawsuit tests a system that, while recognizing the validity of a vote contrary to an earlier pledge, imposes a $1000 fine on an elector who casts such a vote.

In 1952 the Supreme Court upheld an Alabama law requiring a person seeking office as an elector to pledge to support the nominee of his party.

Laws limiting the discretion of electors are justified as part of the state’s power to “appoint” electors. The justification is not airtight, however, because the appointment of an officer and directing his or her vote are not quite the same thing. For example, the people have power to appoint (elect) members of Congress and other officials. The people are right to expect successful candidates to honor their promises within practical limits. But the people have no constitutional power to direct congressional votes.

Consider also the rules under which Congress, state legislatures, and conventions exercise their constitutional powers in the amendment process. States have repeatedly passed laws attempting to control the actions of those assemblies, but the courts have repeatedly struck them down. The courts’ holdings are consistent with the founders’ understanding of how legislatures and conventions worked: Lawmakers could follow their consciences and convention delegates enjoyed significant discretion within the scope of the convention call. Indeed, if some delegates who had run for their state ratifying conventions as antifederalists had not voted for the Constitution once compromise had been reached, the Constitution would not have been ratified.

As explained below, the evidence suggests that the scope of a presidential elector’s constitutional discretion is even greater than that of a convention delegate.

Before proceeding further, however, let’s dispose of one issue. Some see significance in the fact that the original Constitution was ratified before the rise of national party voting, while the 12th amendment was approved in 1804 after parties became the norm. They suggest, therefore, that the meaning and expectations for elector voting under the 12th amendment might be different from those under the original Constitution.

It is, of course, true that the 12th amendment changed some aspects of the electoral system. But the language relevant to elector discretion charged hardly at all.

The original Constitution provided:

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 did not alter the wording of the first part of this selection, and its replacement for the second part was almost identical to the original: “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.”

This near identity cuts against the idea that there was less elector discretion under the 12th amendment than under the original Constitution. Standard rules of legal interpretation hold that when language does not change, meaning does not change. Party pressures might discipline electors more after 1804 than before, but electors had no more legal obligation to be disciplined after 1804 than before.

It follows that when construing the present constitutional language, we are fully justified in relying on the usual sources employed in construing the original Constitution.

One source of that kind is how contemporaries normally understood words and phrases used in the text.

In both the original and 12th amendment versions, the electors were to vote by ballot. To the founding generation, this invariably meant secret ballot. The whole point of a secret ballot is to hide the elector’s choice so to ensure that choice is free. But free choice is inconsistent with the state telling an elector how to vote.

Another important word in the text is elector. Eighteenth century general dictionaries define an elector as a person who does the choosing. Nathan Bailey’s 1765 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 kinred definitions.

Eighteenth century legal dictionaries did not define “elector,” but they did describe “election”—and with even clearer implications. The most popular law dictionary in America, that of Giles Jacob, 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.

Another important source of original meaning are practices of which the founding generation was aware. One was the election of members of Parliament in Scotland. Members were not directly elected, as in England. Rather, they were elected by “commissioners” selected for that purpose by voters or 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 place that sent him.

Under the 1776 Maryland constitution, the state senate was selected 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.” Again, public expectation was that electors’ discretion would be unfettered.

The two leading precedents in the English speaking world both reinforced dictionary definitions: Electors were to think for themselves.

Now let’s turn to the Constitutional Convention. A key reason for adopting the Electoral College was to ensure the president’s independence from Congress and the states. Thus, James Wilson, who initially favored direct election of the president, shortly thereafter proposed an electoral college instead. According to Madison’s notes, Wilson “wished to derive not only both branches of the Legislature from the people, without the intervention of the State Legislatures but the Executive also; in order to make them as independent as possible of each other, as well as of the States.”

Obviously, permitting the states to dictate electors’ votes would undercut that policy of independence from the states. This is one reason the convention repeatedly rejected proposals for state officials to choose the president. As Edmund Randolph observed, “A Natl. Executive thus chosen will not be likely to defend with becoming vigilance & firmness the national rights agst. State encroachments.”

Next time: The evidence on elector discretion from the debates over the Constitution’s ratification.

Rob Natelson