By Jerry Cornfield
The next episode in a political drama sparked by President Donald Trump’s election took place in a Tacoma office building Friday.
There, in Room 506 of the Rhodes Center, three Democratic electors will contest the $1,000 fines each received after failing to vote for their party’s presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, when the Electoral College convened.
Lawyers for Peter Bret Chiafalo, who lives near Everett, Esther John of Seattle and Levi Guerra of Warden, tried to convince Administrative Law Judge Robert Krabill that the law they are accused of violating is unconstitutional because it infringes on their free speech rights.
“It’s not about the $1,000,” Chiafalo said. “At the end of the day, the opportunity to fight against a law I think is patently unconstitutional is an honor.”
It was Secretary of State Kim Wyman who levied the fines. She was represented by the Attorney General’s office and a spokesman for the department said lawyers will defend the constitutionality of the law and the imposition of the fines.
This was the first legal test of the law’s 40-year-old provision establishing a civil penalty for so-called “faithless electors.”
There’s little dispute in what happened.
Washington has 12 votes in the Electoral College. Democratic Party members chose Chiafalo, John, Guerra and nine others to be their electors. In accordance with state law, each signed a pledge to vote for their party’s nominees for president and vice president — Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine — if they won the popular vote in Washington.
The Democratic duo did win in Washington. But those three electors didn’t keep their word. When the Electoral College met Dec. 19, they backed former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican they considered a better choice than Trump. A fourth elector, Robert Satiacum of University Place, also went rogue and voted for Faith Spotted Eagle, a Native American leader in South Dakota. His hearing with Krabill will be later this month.
What they did wasn’t a surprise. Chiafalo helped found Hamilton Electors which at the time was conducting a national campaign to derail Trump’s presidency by getting electors of both parties to break their pledges and vote for a different Republican to be the nation’s leader. Guerra and John enlisted in the effort.
Until that day, the last time a Washington elector broke from the popular vote in the state was in 1976, when Republican Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley, voted for Ronald Reagan instead of Gerald Ford. The law change came a year later.
Wyman acknowledged she could have let protesters off with a warning to not do it again. She didn’t because she said it would have meant overlooking how the electors’ actions violated the trust of the 1.74 million voters who cast ballots for Clinton with the expectation she’d receive Washington’s allotment of electoral votes.
This matter is now in the hands of Krabill, an administrative law judge for 14 years with the Office of Administrative Hearings, an independent agency created by lawmakers to be a neutral forum to resolve disputes between Washington residents and government agencies.
Krabill was expected to issue a written ruling this week.
Under state case law, the administrative law judge cannot deal with their constitutional claims, noted Peter Lavallee, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office, in an email. Those can only be addressed by the courts, he said.
If true, this won’t be the final episode in this drama.