Election Reform, Federalism, and the Obligations of Voters

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Congress will soon decide whether to changethe American electoral system. Several privatecommissions--one headed by former presidentsGerald Ford and Jimmy Carter--have alreadyreached their conclusions and proposed changesto the way we run our elections.

Since the founding of this country, state andlocal governments have had primary responsibilityfor running congressional elections. Congresshas the authority to override state and local regulationsregarding congressional elections,although the Founders foresaw this power beingused only in "extraordinary circumstances." Theevents of 2000 were not "extraordinary."

Congress should preserve the primacy of thestates in electoral administration. If Congressdecides to spend federal tax money on elections,the funds should go to the states without anystrings attached. Nationalizing electionsthrough federal mandates would be a constitutionaland policy mistake.

Until now the election reform debate hasignored the need to preserve the integrity of elections.Voters have at least the obligation to registerand to be informed enough to cast a ballotsuccessfully. Seeing election reform as a collectiveproblem to be solved solely by collectiveaction is a profound error that may harm theRepublic.

The states should be free to make their owndecisions about voting equipment and voter registrationsystems. Congress should reform theMotor Voter law by removing the obstacles thathave ruined many voting lists. States should considersharply limiting absentee and other votingoutside the polling place. Provisional voting willprove costly both in direct outlays and in delayingelection results. Election Day should not be anational holiday. Media projections of electionresults do little harm and should not be banneddirectly or indirectly by government. Voters needmore education, a goal served by more competitiveelections and an end to current restrictionson campaign finance.

John Samples

John Samples is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government. John Samples is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government.