Saturday, March 2, 2013

Federalize Federal Elections

Election rules have been in the news a lot lately. In the State of the Union, Obama announced the creation of a bipartisan commission to find ways to reduce waiting times at polling places. The implicit assumption behind this commission is that waiting times are a problem of bad management rather than politics (for instance, they will survey customer service specialists), despite the fact that waiting times for whites in 2012 were almost 40% shorter than for blacks and Hispanics, and that in some places this appears to have affected turnout.

There was also considerable and heated controversy over changes in early voting hours and photo ID requirements, which some people claimed disadvantaged blacks, students, and other Democratic-leaning groups. Finally, a few days ago we had the Supreme Court oral arguments on a section of the Voting Rights Act, highlighted by Justice Scalia referring to it as a "perpetuation of racial entitlements" which are known  ("It's been written about.") to be very difficult to get rid of.

Rather than fighting over each effort to change election laws, it's time to cut the Gordian knot. We should simply have one Federal law that applies to all Federal elections around the country. One rule for voter ID and hours, one type of voting machine, even one non-partisan commission to redistrict. Why do we think it is normal to have partisan (often highly partisan) elected officials overseeing elections? Why do we think the gerrymander is normal? Why shouldn't honest democracy be the norm?

The usual objection is that this would impinge upon the Constitutional responsibilities of the states. Here is avatar of the conventional wisdom David Brooks, Friday on the PBS Newshour:

"These are states' obligations. This is a state matter. And so it becomes a little hard to nationalize it."

Well, hang on just a minute. Here's the Constitution, Article I, Section 4, first paragraph, as originally ratified and never amended:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

That seems pretty clear. Federalizing Federal elections is not only Constitutional, but is an eventuality foreseen by the Framers. The problem is not legal but political. In the current environment in Washington it's hard to get Republicans to vote even for things they favor (e.g., the individual mandate), let alone things that would reduce their current electoral advantage.

Still, it's time to start moving the Overton Window on this issue. What's impossible this year may be law in five years.

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