Election Reform, Federalism, and the Obligations of Voters

October 23, 2001 • Policy Analysis No. 417

Congress will soon decide whether to change the American electoral system. Several private commissions–one headed by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter–have already reached their conclusions and proposed changes to the way we run our elections.

Since the founding of this country, state and local governments have had primary responsibility for running congressional elections. Congress has the authority to override state and local regulations regarding congressional elections, although the Founders foresaw this power being used only in “extraordinary circumstances.” The events of 2000 were not “extraordinary.”

Congress should preserve the primacy of the states in electoral administration. If Congress decides to spend federal tax money on elections, the funds should go to the states without any strings attached. Nationalizing elections through federal mandates would be a constitutional and policy mistake.

Until now the election reform debate has ignored the need to preserve the integrity of elections. Voters have at least the obligation to register and to be informed enough to cast a ballot successfully. Seeing election reform as a collective problem to be solved solely by collective action is a profound error that may harm the Republic.

The states should be free to make their own decisions about voting equipment and voter registration systems. Congress should reform the Motor Voter law by removing the obstacles that have ruined many voting lists. States should consider sharply limiting absentee and other voting outside the polling place. Provisional voting will prove costly both in direct outlays and in delaying election results. Election Day should not be a national holiday. Media projections of election results do little harm and should not be banned directly or indirectly by government. Voters need more education, a goal served by more competitive elections and an end to current restrictions on campaign finance.

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