It's Time Both Parties Started Taking the Electoral College Seriously | Opinion

The Supreme Court decided one of its most important rulings of the year, holding that states have the right to punish so-called faithless electors—members of the Electoral College who switch their vote and do not cast their ballot for their party's candidate. The court's decision is important, but for 2020, it does not end the issue. Not every state has law limiting the faithless vote. Instead, the two parties must do something that they've avoided for years: Actually take seriously who they choose for what could be an all-important job.

The poorly-understood Electoral College is actually made up of 538 individuals. Each party chooses its own candidates to serve as Electors. There are very strict and important limits, the most important one being that no elector can be a member of Congress or work for the federal government. There's a practical reason for this limitation. If no one wins a majority of the Electoral College, than the House must choose the President and the Senate will choose the Vice President.

In choosing the electors, the parties generally select some actual party leaders but many electors, especially in the bigger states, serve as either rewards for supporters or "stunt" picks that the party think will help draw attention to it, though it rarely does. A look at New York in 2016 shows all types. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Bill Clinton were both Electors for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Another Elector was an aide to a Congresswoman—and had to step down before the College met as she did not meet the most basic requirement of not holding federal office. A different elector was a 93-year old member of the Working Family Party, who had the extremely appealing story of being the oldest living member of a labor union and granddaughter of a former slave.

New Yorkers were well served by this eclectic group, who all cast their ballots for the candidate with the most votes in the state, Clinton. But other states have not been so fortunate. A modern-day record of 10 electors cast a faithless ballot. Washington State saw four faithless electors, three of them voted for Colin Powell and one for Faithless Spotted Eagle. A Hawaii Elector cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders. Three other electors in Maine, Minnesota and Colorado had their protest votes invalidated, as the same type of State law that was ruled constitutional allowed faithless electors to be replaced.

All of these faithless electors could guess that their stunt votes would not cost the party anything, as Clinton seemed to have lost by a sizable enough amount in the Electoral College. But on the Republican side, two Texas electors deserted Donald Trump, with one voting for John Kasich and the other for Ron Paul. Due to the size of Trump's Electoral College victory, these two electors may have felt that they had good cause not to worry about costing the Republicans the presidency. But there is no reason to think that such voting couldn't take place in a much closer election.

How can the states ward off the potential danger of faithless electors? Yes, they could adopt rules that allow for automatically stripping the vote from any faithless electors. But the parties should take another, more obvious, step—stop nominating stunt electors and only choose people who they can be absolutely sure will vote for the party's candidate. Notably, none of the faithless electors in the last race held elective office. Top level elected officials in the state don't play around when casting Electoral College votes. They know they face significant political retribution from the party and the voters. The Electoral College is no place to play around.

There are only 538 Electoral College votes—and they are arguably the most important votes that anyone will cast in a presidential election year. The two political parties should treat them seriously. Choose the right people for the job, even if it costs you a story or two in the papers.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. He blogs at The Recall Elections Blog.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​