WASHINGTON (NBC News) — The 538 people who cast the actual votes for president in December as part of the Electoral College are not free agents and must vote as the laws of their states direct, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The unanimous decision in the “faithless elector” case was a defeat for advocates of changing the Electoral College, who hoped a win would force a shift in the method of electing presidents toward a nationwide popular vote. But it was a win for state election officials who feared that empowering rogue electors would cause chaos.
The November general election is not actually a direct vote for the presidential candidates. Voters instead choose a slate of electors appointed in their states by the political parties. Those electors meet in December to cast their ballots, which are counted during a joint session of Congress in January.
The court’s opinion said presidential electors must act as their states require, which in most of the nation means voting for the candidate who won the popular vote in their states. In Maine and Nebraska, presidential electors are guided by the votes of congressional districts.
If the court had ruled the other way, then individual electors who decided to vote as they wished in a close race could potentially have the power decide who wins.
Four “faithless electors” from Colorado and Washington state who did not conform to the popular vote in the 2016 election sued, claiming that states can regulate only how electors are chosen, not what comes later.
Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig, who advocates Electoral College reform, told the court that nothing in the Constitution gives states any authority to restrict how an elector can vote, because they act in a federal role when meeting as the Electoral College.