Robert Satiacum Jr., a citizen of the Puyallup Tribe, went to the Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He was also selected as one of 12 Democrats to the Electoral College from the state of Washington, pledged to vote for the party’s nominee if she wins the state on November 8. Washington is worth 12 electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote.
But Satiacum told national media several times that he won’t vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins Washington on Election Day. If he declines – electors’ votes are intended to reflect the popular vote of their respective states – he could be fined $1,000 by the State of Washington. He would also become just the 157th elector in the history of the Electoral College to break a pledge to vote for a specific candidate; those electors are referred to as “faithless electors.”
Satiacum’s decision may be having some influence on other electors. On November 6, New York magazine and other media outlets reported that a second elector from Washington state, Bret Chiafalo, said he’s considering his right to be a "conscientious elector” and to back another candidate. Like Satiacum, Chiafolo is a Sanders supporter.
Faithless electors are not new in U.S. presidential elections.
According to FairVote.org, whose board members include 1980 independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson of Illinois, Federalist elector Samuel Miles of Pennsylvania was the first to buck the system, in 1796; he had promised to vote for Federalist candidate John Adams, but instead cast a ballot for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.
Satiacum, whose wife, Elizabeth, was an elector who signed her name for President Obama in 2012, hosts Tribal Talk, a Native news and talk show on KLAY AM 1180 in Tacoma. He didn’t respond to interview requests from ICTMN. But he has publicly stated that he felt Clinton had changed her positions on issues during the campaign, and that she hasn’t done enough for America’s indigenous peoples or the environment.
“How can I say and do and be who I am and then cast a vote for somebody that’s the same as [Republican nominee Donald] Trump?” Satiacum told Politico on October 12. “They may be male, female, but they’re in the same canoe.”
Satiacum distrusts Clinton’s environmental policies, telling the Associated Press on November 4 he believes Clinton “doesn't care about my land or my air or my fire or my water."
He told the New York Daily News on November 5, “She’s done nothing but flip back and forth [on issues]. She will not get my vote, period.”
Electors can’t change elections – or can they?
Satiacum’s possible rebellion also casts a light on a little-known fact regarding how the U.S. elects its president: Presidential electors make the selection, not voters.
According to the National Archives, the nation’s founders established the Electoral College in the Constitution “as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens.”
The Electoral College consists of 538 electors; a majority of 270 electoral votes is required to be elected president. Each state’s allotment of electors equals the number of members in its Congressional delegation: one for each member of the House of Representatives and two for the state’s U.S. Senators.
The electoral vote should reflect the popular vote; that’s because electors are required, either by state law or party pledge, to cast their votes according to the popular vote. After the general election results are certified, the electors meet in their respective state capitals “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December after the presidential election” and cast their votes for president and vice president on separate ballots, according to which candidate won in their state. Each state submits to Congress a certification of their electoral votes. Those votes are counted in a joint session of Congress on January 6 and the winner declared. The president and vice president take the oath of office on January 20.
Here’s the kicker: According to the National Archives, “There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires Electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states.”
However, “the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Constitution does not require that Electors be completely free to act as they choose” either, the National Archives reports. That’s why political parties may require pledges from electors and states may pass laws requiring electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote.
So, it’s unlikely a dissident elector can change the outcome of a presidential election. (Ah, but wait. If Elector Miles of Pennsylvania had been joined by a few more mavericks, the election of 1796 might have turned out differently, and set a precedent as well – Jefferson lost to Adams by only three electoral votes.)
ONLINE: To see where Clinton and Trump stand on issues, to check the veracity of their claims, and to see where they have flip-flopped, go to PolitiFact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times; and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.