Ray v. Blair First Addressed Faithless ElectorsHistorical
In Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214 (1952), the U.S. Supreme Court first considered the notion of “faithless electors,” members of the Electoral College who fail to vote for their party’s designated candidate. The Court held that a party’s electors may be required to pledge that they will vote for their party’s nominee without running afoul of the Constitution.
Facts of the Case
Ben F. Ray, the chairman of that state’s Executive Committee of the Democratic Party, refused to certify Edmund Blair, a member of that party, to the Secretary of State of Alabama as a candidate for Presidential Elector in the Democratic Primary to be held May 6, 1952. Blair was admittedly qualified as a candidate; however, he refused to pledge to aid and support “the nominees of the National Convention of the Democratic Party for President and Vice-President of the United States.” The chairman’s refusal of certification was based on that omission.
The Supreme Court of Alabama upheld a peremptory writ of mandamus requiring certification. The court approved the mandamus on the sole ground that the above requirement restricted the freedom of a federal elector to vote in his Electoral College for his choice for President. The pledge was held void as unconstitutional under the Twelfth Amendment.
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that requiring electors to pledge their votes to a specific party candidate in primary elections did not violate the Constitution. “We conclude that the Twelfth Amendment does not bar a political party from requiring the pledge to support the nominees of the National Convention,” Justice Stanley F. Reed wrote on behalf of the majority. “Where a state authorizes a party to choose its nominees for elector in a party primary and to fix the qualifications for the candidates, we see no federal constitutional objection to the requirement of this pledge.”
In reaching its decision, the majority rejected the argument that the Twelfth Amendment demands absolute freedom for the elector to vote his own choice, uninhibited by pledge. “It is true that the Amendment says the electors shall vote by ballot. But it is also true that the Amendment does not prohibit an elector’s announcing his choice beforehand, pledging himself,” Justice Reed wrote. “The suggestion that in the early elections candidates for electors—contemporaries of the Founders would have hesitated, because of constitutional limitations, to pledge themselves to support party nominees in the event of their selection as electors is impossible to accept. History teaches that the electors were expected to support the party nominees.”
The Court went on to hold that even if promises made by members of the Electoral College are legally unenforceable, it would not follow that the requirement of a pledge in the primary is unconstitutional.Justice Reed explained:
A candidacy in the primary is a voluntary act of the applicant. He is not barred, discriminatorily, from participating, but must comply with the rules of the party. Surely one may voluntarily assume obligations to vote for a certain candidate. The state offers him opportunity to become a candidate for elector on his own terms, although he must file his declaration before the primary. Even though the victory of an independent candidate for elector in Alabama cannot be anticipated, the state does offer the opportunity for the development of other strong political organizations where the need is felt for them by a sizable block of voters. Such parties may leave their electors to their own choice.
Dissent Robert H. Jackson authored a dissent, which was joined by William O. Douglas. Justice Jackson argued that electors “although often personally eminent, independent, and respectable, officially became voluntary party lackeys and intellectual nonentities to whose memory we might justly paraphrase a tuneful satire: ‘They always voted at their Party’s call, and never thought of thinking for themselves at all.’”
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.