By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Jason Snead
June 3, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal
President Biden and his media partisans are stepping up the pressure campaign on Joe Manchin. The West Virginia senator is the only Democrat in the upper chamber who hasn’t signed on to H.R.1, styled the For the People Act, an unprecedented federal takeover of U.S. election laws that the House passed in March and that the Senate plans to consider this month. The bill’s supporters describe it as a vital safeguard of democracy, but it’s the opposite: If enacted it would destroy the Constitution’s careful balance of federal and state powers, taking common election safeguards along with it.
H.R.1 plainly exceeds Congress’s power to regulate presidential elections, as we argued in these pages in February. That’s only the start of its constitutional infirmities.
The primary asserted constitutional basis of H.R.1 is Article I’s Elections Clause, which authorizes state legislatures to establish the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, while providing that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (2013), the Supreme Court held that several state election-integrity measures were invalid because federal law pre-empted them.
Yet H.R.1’s sponsors fail to recognize that the Elections Clause limits Congress’s authority to time, place and manner. “Prescribing voting qualifications,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court in 2013, “forms no part of the power to be conferred upon the national government by the Elections Clause.” Article I’s Qualifications Clause provides that “the electors”—that is, voters—“in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.” Determining those qualifications is up to the states, except where the Constitution says otherwise—for instance in the 19th and 26th amendment, enfranchising women and 18-year-olds, respectively.
Yet H.R.1 purports to establish federal voter qualifications for congressional elections. A prime example is the section mandating “democracy restoration”—a euphemism for enfranchising felons except during imprisonment, a decision the Constitution leaves to the states. The bill’s provisions governing internet voter registration, automatic registration and same-day registration are also suspect. Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting in Inter Tribal Council, argued that registration is a matter of qualifications, not manner. Scalia and the majority didn’t disagree, so that issue remains open for adjudication.
Other provisions would intrude into states’ efforts to ensure the integrity of elections—such a fundamental aspect of sovereignty that erasing it extinguishes states’ status as coequal sovereigns. H.R.1 would require states to accept a voter’s sworn statement attesting to his identity and eligibility in lieu of any other identification requirement. The Inter Tribal Council majority held that “the power to establish voting requirements is of little value without the power to enforce those requirements” and stated that a statute precluding “a State from obtaining the information necessary to enforce its voter qualifications” would “raise serious constitutional doubts.”
The constitutional problems with H.R.1 are more fundamental than its specific provisions. One arises from their sheer magnitude, which would effectively create a comprehensive federal elections code. The Constitution’s framers and early commentators were united in their rejection of a congressional takeover of federal elections.
Federalist 59 affirmed that the Elections Clause granted power, “in the first instance, to the local administrations” and merely “reserved to the national authority a right to interpose, whenever extraordinary circumstances might render that interposition necessary to its safety.” Justice Joseph Story’s “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States” (1833) noted that Congress would pass election legislation only if “there has been some extraordinary abuse” and would provide merely “a check upon state legislation.”
H.R.1’s supporters claim the bill provides such a check against a supposed rash of “voter suppression” measures. That claim is flimsy given historic turnout and diversity in recent elections, as well as data showing that voter-ID laws don’t depress turnout. H.R.1 features provisions Democrats have long favored—further evidence that it isn’t a response to a new crisis.
H.R.1’s extreme federal election takeover raises the question of how far Congress can go to oust states from the entire field. Federalist 59 describes Congress’s role as regulating elections “in the last resort”; H.R.1 does so as the first resort. The Supreme Court has never had to address the outer limits of Congress’s power because nothing like H.R.1 has ever passed. But if it does, its comprehensiveness should be its undoing.
There’s another problem. H.R.1 would also compel states to administer and fund the new election regime through state-established and funded redistricting commissions and online registration schemes. Such requirements violate the Supreme Court’s anticommandeering and anticoercion doctrines, which prohibit Congress from mandating that states do its bidding or unduly burdening those that refuse.
Some courts have found the anticommandeering doctrine inapplicable to election laws, reasoning that Congress’s Elections Clause power authorizes it to regulate federal elections. That’s a non sequitur. The doctrine applies when Congress has constitutional authority to regulate the matter directly; it condemns the indirect manner of dictating “what a state legislature may and may not do,” as Justice Samuel Alito put it for the court in Murphy v. NCAA (2018). The high court has never endorsed a different view, and in Inter Tribal Council, it stated that the Elections Clause “is none other than the power to pre-empt”—implying it is not the power to commandeer.
The anticoercion doctrine also prohibits H.R.1’s proposed federal takeover of state authority, and no court has denied that it applies in the electoral context. As Chief Justice John Roberts stated in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), the anticoercion doctrine requires Congress to afford states “a legitimate choice whether to accept . . . federal conditions” in choosing whether to administer a federal program.
H.R.1 would leave no choice at all. It isn’t a cooperative federalism program giving states benefits in exchange for implementing federal laws. Instead, it would force states to do what Congress can’t: administer national elections in every state.
The constitutional problems with H.R.1 are legion, and no new federal election legislation is necessary. States are exercising their constitutional authority, revising election laws to balance the imperatives of voter access and election integrity. Mr. Manchin should stick to his guns.
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.