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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Faithless’ electors $1,000 fines upheld

OLYMPIA – Secretary of State Kim Wyman (standing at podium) addresses the Washington Electoral College before members cast the state’s votes for president on Dec. 19, 2016 (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t let three Washington members of the Electoral College off the hook for fines received for not casting votes for Hillary Clinton as they pledged, a Thurston County judge has ruled.

They did not “meet their burden” of showing the $1,000 fine violates their constitutional rights, Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy said in a decision late last week. Enforcing the state law requiring electors to keep their pledge is within the state’s power, she said.

The three Democratic Party electors – Peter Chiafalo, Levi Guerra and Esther John – signed pledges to vote for their party’s nominee in the Electoral College if she carried the state in the 2016 election. Clinton won Washington by more than 500,000 votes in the general election.

But when the state’s Electoral College gathered last December, the three voted for Colin Powell. Chiafalo, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, had said previously he was part of a Hamilton elector movement that would try to keep Trump from taking office by trading a Clinton vote in Washington for a Trump elector’s vote elsewhere, but that movement fizzled before the Electoral College met.

Across the country, seven electors voted last year for someone other than the winner of the presidential race in their state; four of them were from Washington. Their votes are all recorded as part of the official Electoral College results.

Washington has a “faithless elector” statute that says any member of its Electoral College who doesn’t vote for the candidate winning the popular vote can be fined $1,000. The three electors who voted for Powell, and a fourth who voted for Native American activist Faith Spotted Eagle to highlight the controversy over the Keystone XL Pipeline, were all fined.

The three Powell electors appealed, contending that while they may have had an obligation to vote for Clinton, the state didn’t have a right to enforce that obligation through a fine or other punishment. The state’s power over electors should end when the electors are appointed, their attorney Jonah Harrison argued in a legal brief.

But attorneys for Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who is Washington’s chief election officer, said no court has adopted the view that members of the Electoral College have a constitutional right to vote for any candidate they choose.

“When electors cast their votes, they do so on behalf of the state that appointed them,” Deputy Attorney General Callie Castillo said in a brief that defended the statute.

They weren’t forced to be electors, Castillo said. They sought the appointment, signed the pledge when chosen and were free to step down before the Electoral College met without a penalty.

Attorneys for the electors say they plan to appeal, and the dispute may have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.