Not overly concerned about America’s political stability? Here’s a scenario, conceivable both politically and legally — under existing federal and state statutes and precedents — that might change your mind:

President Trump loses the popular vote in 2020 but wins everywhere he won in 2016, minus Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District

A 269-to-269 electoral college tie looms! The new House of Representatives can break it in January 2021, with 50 state delegations entitled to one vote each and 26 needed to win. Alas, voters picked 25 GOP-majority delegations, 22 Democratic and three split.

Then each party frantically lobbies the 538 presidential electors, hoping one will switch sides before electoral votes are cast on Dec. 14, thus assuring a 270-vote victory without a struggle in the House. 

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Several electors express interest, only to run afoul of statutes in 32 states and the District that bind them to their pre-election pledges.

Lawyers rush to court to “free the electors,” but lower courts reach conflicting conclusions because there is no binding Supreme Court precedent. The justices themselves have no choice but to convene amid the crisis. Trump issues vulgar threats on Twitter. “Pro-democracy” demonstrators occupy Capitol Hill. 

Fortunately, the justices have an opportunity right now to spare the country, and themselves, this nightmare. 

Two newly filed appeals Baca v. Colorado Department of State and Chiafalo v. Washingtonpresent the issue of whether the Constitution allows states to fine, replace and otherwise punish presidential electors who violated pledges to vote for the winner of state popular votes, or whether it made the electors free agents.

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If they accept the cases soon, the justices can hold arguments and rule by next July, well in advance of the November election. 

It’s an age-old question. The framers of the Constitution touted the electoral college as an elite independent body, but it quickly evolved into a partisan one, selected according to political loyalty. This long-standing custom has hardened into a popular-vote-winner-take-all norm applying to each state’s electoral votes (except in Nebraska and Maine, which allocate some by congressional district). 

Still, since 1796, some 167 electors have voted, or attempted to vote, for candidates not backed by the voters of their states; generally Congress has counted their votes, in part because “faithless electors” never changed the outcome.

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In 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that states could permit parties to bind their own primary candidates for presidential elector to vote for the party’s nominee, but has never resolved the slightly, and crucially, different issue of whether such an obligation could be enforced on the winners in November.

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A wonderful thing about this question is that it has no characteristically Republican or Democratic answer — faithless electors can strike either party, and they have. 

In 2016, it was Democrats who tried to encourage electors’ latent independence, in a last-ditch effort to get Trump-pledged electors to back the popular vote winner, Hillary Clinton — or at least a third person, to deny any candidate an electoral-vote majority and throw the contest into the House. 

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Michael Signer, at the time the Democratic mayor of Charlottesville, suggested that the electors “be given the resources and support by relevant state agencies to fully deliberate on the issues before them. Their meetings should be run under Robert’s Rules of Order and be open to citizens and to the media. If they are unable to conclude their deliberations [by the statutory deadline], they should be able to deliberate as long as they reasonably need to make their choice.” 

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In the end, two Trump electors and five pledged to Clinton voted for other people — not enough to alter the result. 

However, it would have been a different story in a 269-to-269 tie, or a replay of the 271-to-266 cliffhanger in 2000. Perhaps with that in mind, Washington state and Colorado enforced their bans against faithless electors in 2016, and the electors’ legal appeals ended in conflicting rulings. 

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Washington’s supreme court, extrapolating from the 1952 Supreme Court ruling, concluded that the states’ constitutional power to “appoint” electors included the power to control their votes; thus, levying $1,000 fines on three Clinton-pledged electors who voted for former secretary of state Colin Powell was perfectly constitutional. 

The Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, by contrast, ruled that a Clinton elector in Colorado who tried to vote for John Kasich had every right to do so. 

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Electors are federal officials, beyond state control, the 10th Circuit opinion noted; and Alexander Hamilton himself once described them as “capable of analyzing the qualities” of a good president and “acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.” 

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The clashing decisions present the Supreme Court with a choice, not between red and blue, but between pragmatism and formalism.

The justices can bless existing state laws, constitutionalizing the rough, but settled, expectations on which those laws rest. Or they can upend laws and expectations, in the name of faithfulness to the framers’ intent. 

The country can probably adapt to either result, if it comes well before November; the only thing the court cannot do is wait.

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