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In our opinion: States’ rights win big at the Supreme Court

SHARE In our opinion: States’ rights win big at the Supreme Court
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Associated Press

States’ rights won big at the Supreme Court on Monday. Without the freedom to force their electors to cast ballots that reflect the majority of their voters, states would lose the advantage the Electoral College gives them, which is the ability to force presidential candidates to respond to their unique needs, or to the needs of regions such as the Intermountain West.

Those needs otherwise would be ignored if presidents were elected solely on the basis of the popular vote. Only the most populous states and metropolitan areas would gain attention then.

By a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court said the Constitution does not expressly prohibit states from requiring electors to set their own feelings aside and vote in line with the majority of that state’s voters. The opposite also holds true. States may allow electors to vote as they please.

However, most states require fealty to the majority vote, and 15 have laws that punish faithless electors for going rogue. The case that made its way to the Supreme Court involved three electors in the state of Washington who, rather than voting for Hillary Clinton, who won that state’s popular vote in 2016, cast ballots for former Secretary of State Colin Powell as a compromise choice. Washington law fined them each $1,000.

The court said states have the power to require their electors to live within the state and to qualify as a regular voter. It follows, then, that they have the power to force electors to cast ballots for their party’s nominee. In most states, electors are chosen by the party whose candidate won the popular vote. This makes perfect sense, especially since the Constitution is silent on the matter.

It takes a special sort of hubris for an elector to assume that his or her opinion ought to outweigh those of the voters in a state. Taken to its extreme, a nation full of rogue electors could create a type of chaos that would destroy the unique fabric of American republican democracy. That would be especially damaging at a time when rumors of foreign interference and other irregularities already threaten to erode confidence in the electoral system.

The Electoral College is, without doubt, a peculiar system. But it has, mostly, solved the problem of selecting presidents to represent a vast and diverse nation.

As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court’s main opinion, it arose among a committee of 11 men who, in the closing days of the Constitutional Convention, were charged with finding a solution to a contentious issue. James Madison said this process “was not exempt from a degree of the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience in all such bodies; tho’ the degree was much less than usually prevails in them.”

The Electoral College they devised came under attack almost from the beginning. It had to be amended after a few years to reflect the rise of political parties. Originally, the candidate with the second most electoral votes was made vice president. But besides that, its detractors have long argued that a nationwide popular vote would make more sense.

Their side gains traction whenever the Electoral College’s worst-case scenario takes place — a candidate wins an Electoral College majority despite losing the popular vote. Unfortunately, this has happened twice already in this young century, including the last election.

This supposed flaw does not outweigh the Electoral College’s main virtue, which is that it turns every presidential contest into 50 separate elections, forcing candidates to acknowledge unique geographical issues and concerns.

That virtue would disappear if electors could do as they please, something the court now has wisely given states the power to prohibit.