How to end the voting wars
January was an intense month in the ongoing voting wars between the two major parties. Even the most eager observer of election politics likely was exhausted by it all.
The frenzy began with various media remembrances of the Jan. 6, 2020 riot in the Capitol that delayed the presidential transition. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ensured nearly all members of the GOP stayed very far away from the ceremony by making it a liberal spectacle complete with members of the musical Hamilton singing “Dear Theodosia.”
Then came reports that the House’s January 6th committee was demanding information and answers from Sean Hannity, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and various politicos in seven Biden-winning states who sent alternate, pro-Trump electoral slates. News also broke on Democratic and Republican gerrymandering in multiple states, a GOP lawsuit to strike down a vote-by-mail law in Pennsylvania and stop-the-steal endorsers running for state election administrator positions.
Were that not enough, the Senate convened on elections reform legislation. Over two days, with plenty of intermissions, one Democrat after another stood up, bemoaned the impending death of democracy, and insisted that saving it necessitated enacting a 700-page bill that few in the chamber had read. The Republicans who bothered to speak rolled their eyes and asked why nothing in the bill addressed the Electoral Count Act, whose vague provisions opened the door to the mayhem on Jan. 6. They also tweaked President Joe Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) over the fact that voting accessibility rules are stricter in Delaware and New York (their respective home states) than in Georgia. Biden and Schumer, mind you, have decried Georgia’s new law as Jim Crow 2.0.
To end the month, former President Donald Trump again proclaimed that Mike Pence could and should have overturned the 2020 election by throwing out states’ electoral slates. And the New York Times called out Democrats for castigating “dark money” in elections when they themselves accept tens of millions of bucks from secretive groups funded by plutocrats.
Certainly, competition between the parties is normal and healthy. Productive political competition features parties and candidates contending to show who can govern better. But what we see these days mostly is destructive political competition wherein partisans relentlessly battle to rig the rules of the game in their favor.
It does not have to be this way. A truce can be forged by two means.
First, Congress can update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to prevent another Jan. 6. Already, both a bipartisan Senate gang and the Committee on House Administration have looked at amending the statute. Not least, a revised statute should make it even clearer that the vice president has no authority to toss out any lawfully submitted state electoral votes. The threshold for legislators to delay the vote count by objecting to a state’s electors also should be made much higher. (Presently, it takes only one member of each chamber.)
Second, Congress should establish election administration standards that address the various bones of contention between the two parties. For example, Democrats want voters to be automatically registered to vote when they get driver’s licenses or government identification cards. Republicans grouse that ill-maintained voter rolls mean some ineligible people get ballots to cast. So why not compromise, and have automatic voter registration but frequent voter list verification?
There are plenty of bipartisan bargains that can be struck that speak to the concerns of both parties. Similar deals can be cut on voting by mail, early voting, cyber security and physical security of ballots, deadlines for vote counting, and audits. And to make matters easier for Congress, a bipartisan group of thinkers already has drafted a framework to help guide their negotiations to produce a bill.
To be clear, nobody of sound mind wants a federal takeover of elections administration. That would be unconstitutional and unwise. States must remain the laboratories of democracy, which means being free to experiment with how they operate elections. If Utah wants to offer automatic voting by mail combined with a frequent scrubbing of the voter rolls, have at it. If Missouri wants to experiment with independent redistricting commissions, so be it.
But when it comes to basic administrative matters involving access to voting and the security of ballots, Congress can help more states to meet higher standards that are established in federal law. Colorado and Georgia, for example, already rank highly on these broad metrics, while others fare far worse. Those divergent standards among the states are grist for partisans who want to claim votes are being suppressed or elections were stolen.
We would all benefit from a national agreement — well, all of us but the various grifters who make money peddling lies and trying to corrupt election administration. Parties, media, elected officials and voters all could regain trust in the system and its results.
Best of all, national, state and local elections could return to being about the issues and governing competence, rather than being about election administration.
Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coeditor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020).
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