Democrats want to impose federal rules on elections for president. Congress doesn’t have that power.
By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Jason Snead
Feb. 16, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal
House Democrats have made election “reform” their top legislative priority. House Resolution 1, styled the For the People Act, would vitiate existing state election laws, federalize the rules of congressional and presidential elections, and effectively do the same for state elections, which are often conducted on the same ballot. Critics have noted that the proposed rules are designed to benefit Democrats. They’re also unconstitutional.
The key problem is that the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the authority to regulate all federal elections in the same way. Congress has significant power over congressional elections. The Elections Clause of Article I, Section 4 provides that state legislatures “shall prescribe” the “times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives,” but also authorizes Congress to “make or alter such regulations.”
Yet Congress has only limited authority over the conduct of presidential elections. They are governed by the Electors Clause in Article II, Section 1, which provides: “Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States.” Congress’s timing determination is binding on the states, as the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held last year in Carson v. Simon, which rejected Minnesota’s modification of its ballot-receipt deadline. (The Honest Elections Project sponsored the litigation, and Mr. Rivkin was the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.)
But the Electors Clause gives state legislatures plenary power over the manner of selecting presidential electors. It does not permit lawmakers to promulgate a comprehensive federal elections code. Nor does the 15th Amendment, which bars racial discrimination in voting, or the other amendments extending the franchise. Each grants Congress the power to enforce its guarantees through “appropriate legislation.” But as the Supreme Court explained in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), “Congress does not enforce a constitutional right by changing what the right is.” None of these amendments guarantee the right to vote in any particular way—such as by mail versus in person—so Congress can’t rightly be said to be enforcing them through H.R.1. And none of them repeal the Electors Clause.
Although all 50 state legislatures have provided for popular election of presidential electors, the legislatures could change state law and appoint electors directly. H.R.1 violates the Electors Clause on its face, purporting to govern not merely the time, place and manner of congressional elections, but also regulating presidential elections in exactly the same prescriptive matter as congressional elections.
The profound difference between the Electors Clause and the Elections Clause was no accident. The 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia considered many possible methods of choosing the chief executive: direct popular election, selection by one or both houses of Congress, even a vote of state governors. Ultimately, delegates settled on a college of electors, chosen in a manner to be determined by the legislature of each state, to avoid the president’s selection by Congress. As Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris said at the convention, “if the Executive be chosen by the [national] legislature, he will not be independent [of] it; and if not independent, usurpation and tyranny on the part of the legislature will be the consequence.”
Another delegate, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, explained later: “In the Federal Convention great care was used to provide for the election of the president of the United States independently of Congress; to take the business as far as possible out of their hands.” Congress, Pinckney continued, “had no right to meddle with it at all.” The only exception is that the House chooses the president if no candidate commands an Electoral College majority.
The Supreme Court has recognized state legislatures’ primacy in regulating presidential elections. In McPherson v. Blacker (1892), the justices upheld Michigan’s apportionment of presidential electors by congressional district, holding that the Constitution “leaves it to the [state] legislature exclusively to define the method” of appointing electors. Subsequent rulings have adhered to that principle. In Burroughs v. U.S. (1934), the court held that Congress’s authority is limited to enacting laws that don’t “interfere with the power of a state to appoint electors or the manner in which their appointment shall be made.”
The court restated this principle as recently as 2000, holding unanimously in Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board that the Florida Supreme Court couldn’t change state election laws on its own authority, without action by the Legislature.
Even if lawmakers cured the constitutional deficiency of H.R.1 by applying it only to congressional elections, it would still be bad policy. Voting systems are vast and complex. Even minor, well-intentioned changes can have significant unintended consequences. Few know this better than election officials themselves. According to a recent report by Pennsylvania’s county commissioners, “uncertainty regarding court challenges” and “confusion because of ever-changing guidance” from Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar contributed to the November delays and problems experienced by counties across the commonwealth. It took Philadelphia two weeks to count 700,000 ballots.
By contrast, Florida has spent two decades bolstering its election system after the debacle of 2000. The Sunshine State processed 11 million ballots in November and reported accurate results on election night. More states should be doing what Florida does.
But H.R.1 would put Florida’s success at risk. Its law requires voters to show identification and return absentee ballots by Election Day, bans organized ballot trafficking, and requires that voters cure problems with their mail-in ballots no later than two days after an election. Common-sense measures like these help the state deliver honest elections with prompt and accurate results even in the face of a pandemic. For H.R.1’s drafters, though, these are instruments of “voter suppression.” The bill would dilute or prohibit all these measures.
Keeping states in charge of elections also limits the damage when policy changes fail. States can experiment with voting improvements, learn from missteps, and replicate successes. Not so with a one-size-fits-all system. Any troubles caused by a national voting law will instantly affect all 50 states, none of which will have the freedom to correct them. Imposing unconstitutional voting changes on the whole nation would politicize the machinery of democracy and risk permanently tainting the credibility of elections.
Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Snead is executive director of the Honest Elections Project.