Election officials need resources and flexibility, not federal mandates
The spread of COVID-19 is causing not only a health crisis and economic turmoil, but is also affecting the fundamental act of citizenship in a democracy — voting. Several states have already postponed primaries to help stem the outbreak. If November’s election takes place in the shadow of a pandemic, our nation must be prepared to protect the health of voters and election workers while also encouraging participation and ensuring election integrity.
As the respective former chairs of the Federal Election Commission and the Election Assistance Commission, we believe the best, most effective steps require tailored assistance that recognizes the unique regional and local ways Americans cast their vote. Advocates of top-down, one-size-fits-all federal solutions miss the simple reality that what works in one place might not in another. We need to help states and localities, each with unique geography, custom and history, do it best their way.
Decentralized election administration in the United States is a feature, not a bug. It encourages innovation. Additionally, the diversity of election practices in our country protect against large-scale election fraud by forcing bad actors to overcome the imposing obstacle of manipulating not one, but multiple different systems.
The good news is that the most recent economic relief bill by Congress included $400 million for helping state and local election officials address coronavirus-related complications. Fortunately, this will equip the people who best understand local voter needs with important resources to meet current challenges by identifying and implementing targeted responses, such as polling place reconfiguration to allow for proper distancing, rigorous voting device cleaning procedures, expanded curbside voting, increased access to absentee ballots, and relocating polling places away from vulnerable populations.
The bad news is legislation that encroaches on state and local authority to run elections may be considered soon. If Congress is going to act, it should focus on the exigencies of the current crisis; avoid imposing broad new requirements that further nationalize our election system; dispense funds as efficiently as possible; and provide election officials with discretion in spending funds.
Expanding voting by mail is also one option states are exploring. While this is a viable alternative that allows citizens to vote while maintaining social distance, it does have shortcomings — a higher likelihood of uncounted ballots (due to deficiencies like missing signatures) and increased opportunities for voter fraud. It is also expensive, requiring jurisdictions to print more ballots, provide postage-paid envelopes, and purchase additional ballot-reading scanners — all while their revenues plummet due to the pandemic-caused economic slowdown. So while it might be part of the solution, mail-in balloting is no cure-all.
At the federal level, the election-related provisions in the House bill introduced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during the coronavirus relief debate, unfortunately, went the wrong way. The bill would have imposed sweeping permanent federal requirements on states and localities, including mandatory no-excuse absentee voting, with states being foreclosed from requiring ID from those submitting mail-in ballots. It would have federalized ballot harvesting that allows a person other than the individual voter to collect and return a ballot, and required states to send absentee ballots, whether requested or not, to every registered voter for this November’s election. Also adding to the bill’s problems were mandatory same-day registration and permitting voters to cast provisional ballots at any polling place in the state.
These requirements were not ultimately included in the final bill. But if enacted, they would have overturned dozens of state laws and constituted the most aggressive usurpation of state and local control of elections in our country’s history.
Recent legislation introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) goes down a similar path, containing many of the same mandates, most of which have been hotly debated for decades and remain controversial because they create opportunities for ballot tampering and voter fraud.
Any election legislation before November should center not on new federal mandates but on providing resources to states and localities without burdensome strings attached. Let those closest to the challenge manage their voting processes to ensure the safety of voters and poll workers alike. On-the-ground officials charged with the smooth maintenance and operations of our nation’s elections are best positioned to enhance the accessibility, accuracy and security of the November election amid the spread of COVID-19.
Matthew Petersen is the former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, and Gineen Bresso is the former Chairwoman of the Election Assistance Commission. Petersen is a Partner, and Bresso is Of Counsel, at Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC.
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