Previously, I tried to unpack the regrettable misunderstanding that current attempts to strength U.S. elections nationwide are some form of Federal hijack of states’ responsibilities for elections. And I am not our corporate lawyer or anyone in Legal trying to sort this out. But from a layperson’s view (at least to Constitutional law and all) this doesn’t seem overly complicated.
The simple statement is that the Congress can and repeatedly has placed funded mandates on states to change how each state does some part of Federal elections, to meet a new Federal standard.
And in many cases, there have been efforts to offer funding so long as a state can agree to some standards or guidelines.
That seems like a fair “quid pro quo” (as our lawyers would say), but let’s focus on funded mandates. In each case, the choice has been (and constitutionally must be) up to the state whether and how to retain their own state-specific methods for elections without contests for Federal office.
Point taken, perhaps, but the next question is, “Why is it important now?” Why is there so much desire on the part of some politicians to make changes to federal elections?
Why is it Important Now?
First, consider how DHS-CISA views it:
“Fair and free elections are a hallmark of American democracy. The American people’s confidence in the value of their vote is principally reliant on their confidence in the security and resilience of the infrastructure that makes the Nation’s elections possible. Accordingly, an electoral process that is both secure and resilient is a vital national interest…”
We know that:
U.S. elections are the target of attack by several potential actors, but notably, nation-state adversaries who will continue to seek to disrupt and discredit our elections as part of their stated goal to weaken all western democracies, and in particular the U.S.
Most of the 7,000+ local elections offices in this country are not equipped to defend themselves or their locally managed federal elections – not against nation-state adversaries; not in the current situation.
To improve that situation, the federal government has an interest in defining some new uniform national standards for how elections can be protected, just as the federal government did for defining national standards for voter databases, accessible voting, and military voting.
Current legislation seeks to define those standards, and provide funding for states to adopt them, just as HAVA (Help America Vote Act of 2002) did for updated voting machines.
And some of the changes are not complicated.
For example, requiring that federal elections have a paper ballot for each voter, just in case there is a problem with the voting machinery, so that paper ballots are there to determine the true winners. This idea is not complicated. Though it is expensive to replace all the old, hackable, unreliable paperless voting machines – and thankfully the federal government is willing to foot those bills.
The Most Essential Question
So the debate about election security appears to boil down to this question:
“Do you believe that it is each state’s prerogative to run elections for federal office in its own state-specific way, regardless of national security threats, and regardless of the giant mismatch in funding for local election offices compared to their national security responsibilities?”
If you’re not sure, please ask any local election official about whether they could use additional funding to improve the security and integrity of their election operations. Few will say that they’re good; all set, completely fine, and couldn’t responsibly spend an additional dollar if you handed it to them.
The real question is not whether states and localities could use additional funding, but rather whether Congress will be able to provide funding that comes with the requirement to spend it on meeting federal requirements for federal elections, while leaving states and localities free to choose what impact if any it will have on state and local elections.
Really, that’s all this is or should be about.
I am not for any sort of over-reach or take-over of elections by the federal government. But if we step out of a partisan posture for a moment, exercise some intellectual honesty, can we then view this for what it really is: abiding by the constitutional constructs in place to protect states rights, while considering the reasonable federal interest in protecting federal elections notwithstanding whatever states want to do regarding administering elections otherwise?
I bet we can. And as a matter of national security in defense of democracy we must.