Every major case that the Supreme Court decides has the potential to settle a lot about what the nation’s laws or its Constitution mean. Much of the time, though, the Court prefers to decide such a case narrowly, leaving serious questions unanswered.
Today’s unanimous decision by the Court on the Electoral College is narrow like that. At its broadest, the dispute before it could have allowed the Court to probe deeply into the nature of political representation – that is, to what degree does an elected official, like the President, actually represent the people?
Under the Constitution, the President is not chosen directly by the people, but by middle men (and women) who are the ones the people actually vote for. This is a method of “indirect election,” and the Founders thought that was a good way to neutralize the possibility that the people, if choosing directly, might act rashly and pick someone ill-suited for the office. Electors, founder Alexander Hamilton thought, would probably be the leading figures of the day who could be trusted to choose wisely when selecting a president.
Today, the Court acted as if that did not matter. What did matter, it said, was that the Constitution gave the states the power to pick those middle men (and women), and that the states hold the related power to instruct electors on how they are to vote when they get to the Electoral College following an election.
That was how the Court reached this simple result: the Constitution, it said, allows the states to compel those who vote for President in the Electoral College to cast their votes for the candidate who won the popular vote in a particular state. If an individual elector decides to cast a vote for someone else, the Court made clear, that elector can be punished – perhaps with a fine.
(By implication, because the Court did not say so specifically, a state presumably also has the power to remove an elector who deviates from the popular choice, and name a new elector who will cast a vote as instructed: for the people’s choice.)
With that result, it becomes important to draw a distinction between how that squares with a theory of political representation, and how it squares with a theory of democratic choice.
One of the grievances that the Founders had against England was that the people who lived in the American colonies had no real representation in Parliament: that is, they could not vote at all for an “MP” of their own. They harped repeatedly on the need for direct representation – the right to choose who would represent them in government.
But, for the presidency, they opted for an indirect system. And that is what they fashioned in what would become the Electoral College. But, in reality, the Electoral College is not chosen by even an indirect process, in the ordinary sense of the term. As defined by the Constitution, it is not a very representative body, simply because its membership is not based on population.
There are 538 electors, with that number reflecting the 435 members of the House (which is a more representative body because its seats are divided up mostly by population), the 100 members of the Senate (which is far from representative because each state gets two Senate seats regardless of population), plus the three seats that reflect the 23rd Amendment’s grant to the people of Washington, D.C., to right vote in presidential elections, treating the capital city as if it were a state, but solely for that purpose.
Today’s decision, then, viewed from the perspective of representation, means that the Justices accepted unquestioningly that the President would represent the people in the way that 435 members of the House do, but also would represent the 50 states regardless of the population of each, and the people of the District of Columbia. It is not strictly true, then, that a president who is chosen by such a mixed process is genuinely the people’s choice.
But what about democratic theory? As usually understood, this holds that the people are the ultimate sovereign, and they use that power directly to elect people to govern them.
Measured by that, the new ruling amounted to a victory for democratic principle. The decision means that the presidential candidate whom the actual voters, the people themselves, wanted to be President must get that state’s votes in the Electoral College, if a state chooses to instruct electors to follow the popular choice. (That democratic result, though, is diluted by the unrepresentative character of the Electoral College.)
That outcome is what led Justice Elena Kagan to write, in the closing passages of her lead opinion for the Court, that the Constitution allows a state to tell its presidential electors that “they have no ground for reversing the vote of millions of [a state’s[ citizens. That direction accords with the Constitution – as well as with the trust of a Nation that here, We the People rule.”
In the context of this specific decision, however, that is the rhetoric of democracy, not of true representation.
Given that the process of electing presidents is always more or less surrounded by controversy, where does that controversy, as a constitutional matter, go from here?
Among the questions that still are asked (it was not, in fact, an issue the Court had to face) is whether the Electoral College is out of date, and should be replaced by direct popular election of the President.
The current version of that long-debated idea is driven mainly by the fact that two of the most recent presidents (George W. Bush and Donald Trump) have lost the nationwide popular vote, but managed to win the office by prevailing in the Electoral College.
The new decision, though, could take away some of the support for that proposal, because it arguably does clear the way for the popular choice to be reflected to a greater degree in the Electoral College, if states prefer to mandate that, as most have and as most will continue to do.
But there is an even more serious, and probably more threatening question, that does loom large following today’s decision. It emerges from a part of the Court’s recitation of the early history of presidential elections, showing that — back then — state legislatures themselves chose who would serve as presidential electors, without getting the people involved at all in the process.
It is not necessarily so that, by accepting that approach as part of history, the Court was giving that its constitutional blessing today. On the other hand, think of this mention this way: if state legislators do have the constitutional authority to dictate how electors are chosen and how they are to vote in the end, what is to prevent a given state legislature from opting now to take back, for itself, the method of picking electors, leaving the people out of the mix altogether?
Suppose, for example, that in the later stages of this year’s presidential election (say, in September and October), reliable polling data indicated that President Trump was very likely to be defeated.
Could a Republican-controlled state’s leaders – governor and legislature – decide that the legislature should pick the electors itself? Would today’s decision prevent a change in that state’s laws that gave the legislature that option, and the lawmakers then chose electors committed to supporting President Trump, and mandated that they vote that way?
It might be politically advisable, if that were a temptation, to do so before the election is actually held in November, so as to avoid contradicting the result that might have emerged in that state if the choice were left to the people themselves on election day. Still, there is nothing in the Court’s new ruling that would inhibit preempting the vote in that way.
It is also worth noting that two of the Justices joined in a separate opinion that argued that the constitutional choices left to state legislatures were even wider than the lead opinion by Justice Kagan had embraced. Justice Clarence Thomas authored that separate view, and was joined in that part of his opinion by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. In the view they jointly expressed, the Constitution simply puts very little limitation upon how a state chooses to carry out its part in the presidential election context.
In an America where political party loyalty is as polarized as it now is, a Court opinion that leaves open a wide range of discretion about something as fundamental as a presidential election could well be an invitation at least to experimentation with how to run that election so as to maximize partisan advantage.
It is well to remember that the Court does not intentionally make its decisions in order to advance the political fortunes of one party or the other. Even so, the Court cannot avoid being aware that its choices, though neutral in partisan terms, may well have real-world consequences in the nation’s always-contentious political life.
The election of George W. Bush in 2000, for example, flowed more or less directly from the Court’s ruling that year to end the constitutional fight over counting Florida’s electoral votes.
And, for another example, it was just one year ago that the Court found that the Constitution provides no remedy for gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts, when done for partisan gain.