vision 2020

Let’s Nationalize the Way We Run Elections

Voting opportunities really shouldn’t depend on where you live, or which party controls your access to the ballot. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty

During this pandemic spring, it seems as if the right to vote is up for debate — or some would say under siege — all over the country. President Trump has repeatedly urged his Republican Party to fight expanded voting opportunities as a counter to alleged (but never, ever verified) voter fraud, but also as a matter of partisan self-interest. State-by-state — and in some jurisdictions, county-by-county — disputes over voter-registration procedures, voter-roll maintenance, early voting options, polling-place staffing and safety, and most of all voting by mail, have become intensely politicized, more often than not in a fraught context of public-health fears and grossly inadequate funding for election administration.

It’s far past time to address this crazy quilt patchwork of state and local procedures and end the partisan guerrilla warfare over voting by creating a national system with uniform rules, nonpartisan election administration, and adequate funding to make elections fair and secure. While both parties would benefit from settling how we hold elections on a national level, Democrats should have a particularly strong interest in establishing a meaningful and uniform right to vote that can overcome perpetual efforts to disenfranchise the vulnerable populations that Democrats are sworn to protect.

Election-law expert Rick Hasen has called for this fundamental reform for years, most succinctly in 2013 after an earlier close presidential election that might have gone badly awry:

Long lines. New voting machines that don’t work right. Poll workers wrongfully asking for photo ID. Democratic election officials keeping Republican poll watchers out of Philadelphia polling places …

There is a better way. We can do things as they are done in most mature democracies, like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Nationalize our elections and impose professional nonpartisan administrators. A neutral election board with its allegiance to the integrity of the voting process rather than to a political party should take on the basic tasks of voting. The goal would be to make sure that all eligible voters, but only eligible voters, could cast a vote that would be accurately counted.

There’s no question that nationalizing elections is constitutional if limited to federal elections (those in which House and Senate seats and/or the presidency are at stake). But since all but a handful of states choose to coordinate most elections with federal elections, such an initiative would establish a general principle that voting opportunities would no longer depend on where an eligible citizen lives, much less on which political party happened to control a given state or county.

A key feature of nationalizing elections would be to create a national voter-registration system in which the maintenance of rolls would no longer be in the hands of (often-partisan) state election officials conducting often-over-aggressive “purges.” Hasen explains:

The most important mission of this [nonpartisan national election board] would be to maintain registration and voting rolls. The government would register all voters now on the rolls and pick up new voters when they graduate or drop out of high school, paying all the costs of getting the documents necessary to prove a voter’s identity. When a voter moves and fills out a change of address form, the voter registration moves too.

The government would provide all voters with a national voter identification card, containing a unique number that a voter would use in federal elections for life.

This would in effect create a universal and nationally recognized right to vote that state and local elected officials could not abrogate. Today, that only exists for certain categories of voters in certain circumstances (e.g., minority voters facing clearly discriminatory practices).

A national election board could also set uniform rules for voting by mail, in-person early voting, and ballot security. No longer would an individual state be able to simply ignore vulnerability to hacks (like Georgia did in 2018). And no longer would states set rules for early in-person and by-mail voting on the fly, with the major parties both fighting for angles that would improve their bottom line. National standards could provide a reasonable accommodation for legitimate fears of mail-ballot tampering. Making it a federal felony to fake signatures on mail ballots or alter their content, or imposing national sanctions on organizations that engage in questionable mail ballot collection processes, might offer pretty strong deterrents to fraud.

Most of all, a nationalized election administration system could and should be accompanied by the kind of funding only the federal government can supply to reform our ramshackle voting infrastructure. After the 2000 election fiasco in Florida, which simply exposed deficiencies in our radically decentralized voting apparatus that had been there all along, Congress did pass the Help America Vote Act to encourage state and local reforms. But it was underfunded, entirely voluntary, and too focused on replacing older voting machines with newer ones, which typically were even less reliable and secure. The Election Assistance Commission it created has been toothless, politicized, and sometimes lacking enough confirmed members to even function. And as we are about to vividly see in November (and have already seen in some primaries), state and local election officials are in most places entirely incapable of handling major changes in voting behavior such as this year’s sharp rise in voting by mail, which is going to produce some very long counts and claims of skullduggery.

A robustly funded national election administration system could for the first time offer adequate resources to make voter registration and balloting procedures uniform, transparent, and voter friendly, while also enabling enforcement of ballot security measures that don’t depend on intimidating voters.

Why move in this direction right now? We are approaching a dangerous breakdown in public confidence in the fairness and integrity of elections and the legitimacy of election results, as The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere observes:

Nearly three in five Americans don’t have confidence in the honesty of our elections, a February Gallup poll found. Republicans, Democrats, state officials, grandmothers, first-time voters, the politically engaged, the anti-institutionalists — pretty much the only thing they could agree on was their doubts about the integrity of our democracy.

And that was before the pandemic made everything worse. Now, on top of questions from President Trump about the legitimacy of the election, Russian interference, persistent claims of supposed fraud, and a history of voter suppression, there are all sorts of new worries because of the coronavirus pandemic: long lines, unsafe sites, canceled elections and closed voting locations, absentee ballots faked or claimed to be faked, a collapse of a voting infrastructure that’s being haphazardly reassembled on the fly.

The odds of a disputed presidential election, a constitutional crisis, and perhaps major civic unrest have never been higher, as is evidenced by a recent gathering of political scientists exploring six scenarios for post-election chaos. Perhaps the most likely, thanks to the president’s crusade against voting by mail, is one in which states with Republican legislatures refuse to accept the reversal of Election Night GOP leads as late mail and provisional ballots are counted, and instead award electoral votes to Trump despite the “fraudulent” popular-vote totals.

It may be too late to avoid such perils this November (though a presidential outcome too decisive to question would really help), but at a time when Democrats in particular are open to bigger and bolder policy proposals than ever before, they should seize on nationalizing elections as a reform that could prevent the descent of this country into banana-republic territory when it comes to holding elections: Let’s nationalize election administration and the voter-registration system underlying it.

Yes, Republicans will mostly oppose this sort of initiative, on the sad grounds that the GOP has decided that restricting the franchise where it can is the key to its long-term viability as a governing party at a time when demographic trends seem threatening. But Democrats ought to be willing to make this a major and permanent national policy priority, particularly after this year’s experiences. And in the long run, taking away the temptation for either party to manipulate rules for voter registration, balloting, or vote-counting via control of state and local governments across a vast battlefield of guerrilla warfare may be the only way to make voting rights a bipartisan issue once again.

Let’s Nationalize the Way We Run Elections