Chiafalo v. Washington

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Chiafalo v. Washington
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Full case namePeter B. Chiafalo, Levi Jennet Guerra, and Esther Virginia John, Petitioners v. Washington
Docket no.19-465
Case history
PriorMatter of Guerra, 193 Wash. 2d 380, 441 P.3d 807 (2019)

Chiafalo v. Washington, No. 19-465, is a pending case in the 2019–20 term of the United States Supreme Court on the issue of "faithless electors" in the Electoral College stemming from the 2016 United States Presidential Election. Chiafalo deals with electors in the state of Washington, and a second similar case, Colorado Department of State v. Baca, No. 19-518, related to electors from Colorado, was consolidated with it.


In the United States Electoral College, faithless electors are those who either cast electoral votes for someone other than the candidate of the party that they pledged to vote for or who abstain. Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have passed laws to prevent faithless electors, but none had been enforced prior to 2016. In 1952, the constitutionality of state pledge laws was brought before the Supreme Court in Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214 (1952). The Court ruled in favor of state laws requiring electors to pledge to vote for the winning candidate in order to be certified as electors, as well as removing electors who refuse to pledge. The court did not rule whether pledges were enforceable. Nevertheless, the court also wrote:

However, even if such promises of candidates for the electoral college are legally unenforceable because violative of an assumed constitutional freedom of the elector under the Constitution, Art. II, § 1, to vote as he may choose [emphasis added] in the electoral college, it would not follow that the requirement of a pledge in the primary is unconstitutional.

In his dissent, justice Robert H. Jackson, joined by justice William O. Douglas, wrote: "no one faithful to our history can deny that the plan originally contemplated what is implicit in its text – that electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the men best qualified for the Nation's highest offices."

Case background[edit]

The 2016 presidential election was one of the more decisive ones in United States history, with the Democrats Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine running against Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Trump eventually won the election with 304 votes to 227 to become the 45th President of the United States starting 2017. There was a grassroots effort to try to sway electors to vote for a different Republican candidate other than Trump, even if this were to violate their pledges. There had been an attempt to trade faithless votes between electors of different parties, the Hamilton Electors, to make a more effective impact on the electoral college, but this failed to come together, leaving most of the faithless votes as Democratic electors.[1] Ten electors from six different states swung their votes. Of the ten votes, three were invalidated. The electors in Washington state and Colorado became subject to legal action for violating their pledge as an elector.


Prior to 2016, Washington state law RCW 29A.56.320 required electors, selected by their party, to vote for the candidate of their party during the presidential election, or otherwise subject to a US$1,000 civil penalty.[2]

In the 2016 election, four Washington electors for the Democratic party who had signed pledges to vote for the Democratic nomination voted for candidates other than Clinton/Kaine. Per the law, they were each fined.[3] Three of the four electors challenged the fine as a violation of their Constitutional rights, as the state's authority on them as electors should only end once they are appointed. At the first trial at the Thurston County Superior Court in 2017, the judge ruled against that argument and deemed the fines permissible.[4] The three appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which in May 2019 upheld the lower court ruling on a 8-1 vote. The majority opinion stated that "The power of electors to vote comes from the State, and the elector has no personal right to that vote" to justify the fine.[2][5] Additionally, the state legislation introduced change to the elector law that was passed in 2019 that should an elector fail to follow on voting for the candidate of their party, the elector is removed from the position and a new elector is then appointed.[5]

On October 7, 2019, the three electors appealed their case to the US Supreme Court.[6][7]


Under Colorado law, each presidential elector must vote for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates who received the highest number of votes in Colorado's general election.[8]

Two Democratic electors in the 2016 election sought an injunction against the state's law after the results of the general election were tallied in early November 2016 but before the electoral college vote on December 19, 2016. They challenged Colorado's law on the basis of their Constitutional rights under the Twelfth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Supreme Court's prior ruling in Ray v. Blair in 1952 that left open if states can compel electors to vote as specified with penalties.[9] Secretary of State of Colorado Wayne Williams stated that he would replace electors who failed to vote for Hillary Clinton.[9]

The Tenth Circuit Appeals Court released orders on December 16, 2016, refusing to issue the injunction but stating that removal of faithless electors in the midst of the electoral college process may violate the Twelfth Amendment.[10] While both electors ultimately voted for Clinton during the electoral college vote on December 19, a different elector, Michael Baca, remained faithless, and Williams replaced him that day with a new elector that voted for Clinton.[11]

Baca continued the case with the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court following the election, with oral arguments held in January 2019. The Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of Baca's position in a 2-1 vote in August 2019, agreeing that his removal as an elector violated his Twelfth Amendment rights. The majority opinion, written by circuit judge Carolyn Baldwin McHugh and joined by circuit judge Jerome Holmes, stated that "The text of the Constitution makes clear that states do not have the constitutional authority to interfere with presidential electors who exercise their constitutional right to vote for the President and Vice President candidates of their choice."[12][13] Circuit judge Mary Beck Briscoe dissented, believing the case was moot as there was no remedy the court could give to Baca.[12]

Due to the nearness of the 2020 United States presidential election, the state of Colorado filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court on October 16, 2019 and asking the Supreme Court for an urgent decision on the matter. Colorado's petition identified that the Washington Supreme Court gave a different answer on the matter of faithless electors, creating a split decision among courts that the Supreme Court should resolve.[14]

Supreme Court[edit]

On January 17, 2020, the Supreme Court agreed to hear both the Washington and Colorado cases as a consolidated case under the Chiafalo v. Washington name.[15] Oral arguments are scheduled for April 24, 2020.[16]


The Supreme Court's decision is anticipated to be highly relevant to the 2020 United States presidential election, where the Democrats will be vying to replace Donald Trump, whose presidency has generally been highly criticized. Among the various politicking to achieve this involves the electoral college, and should the general vote result in an initial electoral college vote that is college, the impact of faithless votes, should they be free to select other candidates, would become significant.[17]


  1. ^ O'Donnell, Lilly. "Meet the 'Hamilton Electors' Campaigning for an Electoral College Revolt". The Atlantic. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  2. ^ a b Cornfield, Jerry (May 24, 2019). "State high court upholds $1,000 fines on 'faithless electors'". Seattle Weekly. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  3. ^ La Corte, Rachel (December 23, 2016). "Four state electors to be fined $1,000 for vote". Kitsap Sun. Retrieved December 25, 2016.
  4. ^ Camden, Jim (December 13, 2017). "'Faithless' electors $1,000 fines upheld". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  5. ^ a b Gutman, David (May 23, 2019). "4 Washington state electors decided not to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. They were fined $1,000, went to court and lost". The Seattle Times. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  6. ^ "Supreme Court asked to decide whether electors must vote for state popular vote winner". Jurist. Retrieved October 18, 2019.
  7. ^ "Petition for writ of certiorari" (PDF). Equal Citizens. Retrieved October 18, 2019.
  8. ^ "Electoral College FAQs".
  9. ^ a b Frank, John (December 6, 2016). "Presidential electors in Colorado file suit to block Donald Trump". The Denver Post. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  10. ^ Cheney, Kyle (December 17, 2016). "Court: Removing 'faithless' electors may be unconstitutional".
  11. ^ Eason, Brian (December 19, 2016). "Colorado's electoral votes go to Hillary Clinton after one is replaced". The Denver Post. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  12. ^ a b Flynn, Meagan (August 22, 2019). "He tried to stop Trump in the electoral college. A court says his 'faithless' ballot was legal". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  13. ^ "The Colorado Sun". Retrieved August 21, 2019.
  14. ^ Staver, Anna (October 16, 2019). "Colorado seeks "urgent" decision from Supreme Court on faithless electors". The Denver Post. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  15. ^ Williams, Pete (January 17, 2020). "'Faithless elector': Supreme Court will hear case that could change how presidents are chosen". NBC News. Retrieved January 17, 2020.
  16. ^ Wingerter, Justin (February 21, 2020). "Supreme Court will hear Colorado's faithless electors case April 28". The Denver Post. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  17. ^ Lane, Charles (October 28, 2019). "A nightmare scenario for 2020: A tie that can't be broken. It's conceivable". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 29, 2019.