Franita Tolson

Document Type



The independent state legislature theory provides that state legislatures are not constrained by their respective state constitutions in exercising the authority that the U.S. Constitution delegates to states over federal elections. In its most extreme form, the doctrine permits state legislatures, in overseeing the mechanics of federal elections, to disregard state court interpretations of state constitutions. Scholars have offered a number of criticisms of this doctrine, noting that it runs counter to the Founding Generation’s concerns about the lawlessness of state legislatures; is contrary to historical practice at the Founding; and undermines the constitutional structure in which the more democratically accountable Congress, rather than the states, is vested with final say over federal elections.

This Article contributes to this growing literature by pointing to the constraints, centered in the constitutional text and history, that limit the ability of legislatures to disregard their state constitutions. Specifically, the Electors Clause of Article II, Section 1 provides, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress . . . .” This text explicitly raises the question: Who is the “state” on behalf of which the legislature deploys power?

Using this language as its jumping off point, this Article argues that the “state” referenced in Article II, Section 1 refers to its citizens, whose preferences are conveyed to the state legislature through the state’s electorate and in the state constitution. Within a decade of the Founding, the selection of officials by the state’s electorate became central to the theory of republicanism underlying the Guarantee Clause of Article IV, which predicated the legitimacy of government on majority support. By the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment, which changed the structure of presidential elections, political elites viewed republican government as requiring that state legislatures and, to a lesser extent, federal officials, be accountable to the people who elected them, accountability that prevented state legislatures from exercising their authority over federal elections in blatant disregard of the people’s wishes.

The Article concludes that the independent state legislature theory, particularly in its strongest iteration, runs counter to the democratizing effect that the Twelfth Amendment was intended to have on presidential elections. The theory allows the state legislature to disregard the preferences of the people at a juncture in which they are exercising the oversight and accountability at the core of our system of republicanism: during the election of federal officials. Any version of the doctrine, if adopted, has to respect majoritarian preferences.



First Page


Last Page



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.