Justices fear 'chaos' if states can't bind electors' votes

FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2017, file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington is seen at sunset. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2017, file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington is seen at sunset. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON – Supreme Court justices invoked fears of bribery and chaos Wednesday to suggest they think states can require presidential electors to back their states’ popular vote winner in the Electoral College.

The justices heard arguments on an unusual voting issue that could have important consequences for the 2020 presidential election in an era of intense political polarization.

A focus of the questions was whether states can replace electors who decide to vote for someone other than the state popular vote winner. If they can't, “it would lead to chaos," Justice Samuel Alito said, “where the popular vote is close and changing just a few votes would alter the outcome."

Justice Clarence Thomas asked, “Can a state remove someone, for example, who openly solicits payments for his or her vote?”

Wednesday was the court's final day of arguments by telephone in May, with livestreamed audio, and dealt with whether presidential electors are bound to support popular-vote winners in their states or can opt for someone else. Arguments had been scheduled for the courtroom in April but were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

So-called faithless electors have not been critical to the outcome of a presidential election, but that could change in a contest with a razor-thin margin.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia require presidential electors to vote for the popular-vote winner, and electors almost always do so anyway. Under the Constitution, the country elects the president indirectly, with voters choosing people who actually cast an Electoral College ballot for president. It takes 270 votes to win.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said people become electors by pledging to support a candidate. What troubled her, Ginsburg said, was, “I made a promise to do something, but that promise is unenforceable."