Presidential Electors and the Article V Convention: An Update

A few years ago I wrote a post explaining why the failure of the “Hamilton electors” in the 2016 presidential election demonstrated that it would be equally impossible for an Article V convention to “run away,” i.e., to propose amendments beyond the scope of the convention applied for by the state legislatures. Among other things, I argued that the constitutional case for allowing state legislatures to control their delegates to an Article V convention was stronger than that for exercising such control over their presidential electors. Accordingly, the deterrent and coercive effect of “delegate limitation laws” (DLAs) enacted by various states to control delegates to a potential Article V convention should be as least as great as that of faithless elector laws upon which they were in part modeled.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the constitutionality of faithless elector laws shows that it will be difficult to challenge DLAs and may encourage additional states to enact such laws. In Chiafolo v. Washington, 591 U.S. __ (2020), the Court unanimously held that states may not only require presidential electors to pledge to support a particular candidate but they may penalize electors who violate this pledge. Writing for seven justices, Justice Kagan acknowledged that the framers may have expected that the electors would exercise their own judgment and discretion in voting for president, but the “barebones” constitutional text regarding the electoral college failed to constitutionalize that requirement. Chiafolo, slip op. at 12-13. In contrast, the Constitution expressly gives state legislatures power over the appointment of presidential electors, and “the power to appoint an elector (in any manner) includes the power to condition his appointment– that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect.” Id. at 9. The constitutional text and the longstanding practice of treating electors as mere instruments of the voters’ will persuaded the Court to uphold faithless elector laws.

Justice Thomas, writing for himself and Justice Gorsuch, concurred on different grounds. While he found “highly questionable” the majority’s conclusion that the Constitution affirmatively grants states the power to limit the discretion of presidential electors, he concluded that faithless elector laws were valid under the Tenth Amendment’s reservation of powers to the states and the people.

The Chiafolo ruling provides strong support for the constitutionality of DLAs. The Constitution is even more “barebones” about an Article V convention than about the electoral college. It does not expressly address how an Article V convention is constituted, who selects the delegates, or how they vote. (These omissions did not escape James Madison’s attention. See Michael Stern, Reopening the Constitutional Road to Reform: Toward a Safeguarded Article V Convention, 78 Tenn. L. Rev. 765, 768 n.27 (2011)). Nonetheless, assuming that convention delegates are to be appointed by or in a manner directed by the state legislatures (as virtually everyone agrees would be the case), Chiafolo strongly suggests that these legislatures would have the power to condition the appointment by limiting the discretion of delegates and to impose legal consequences for violations of such condition. Continue reading “Presidential Electors and the Article V Convention: An Update”