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Nationalization of Election Administration: Is That a Thing?

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[Image courtesy of bigthink]

In the wake of long lines and other problems during Election Day last week, the New York Times assembled a variety of voices in its "Room for Debate" to answer the question "Is our voting system fine as it is, or are there ways to make it more reliable and inclusive?"

There are lots of interesting opinions on that page, but the key point of disagreement that jumped out at me (and, apparently, the Times since they put it at the top) was whether or not election administration should be nationalized.

Rick Hasen of UC-Irvine, as he has for years, thinks it should:

We can do things as they are done in most mature democracies, like Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Nationalize our elections and impose professional nonpartisan administrators. A neutral election board with its allegiance to the integrity of the voting process rather than to a political party should take on the basic tasks of voting. The goal would be to make sure that all eligible voters, but only eligible voters, could cast a vote that would be accurately counted.

The most important mission of this agency would be to maintain registration and voting rolls. The government would register all voters now on the rolls and pick up new voters when they graduate or drop out of high school, paying all the costs of getting the documents necessary to prove a voter's identity. When a voter moves and fills out a change of address form, the voter registration moves too.

The government would provide all voters with a national voter identification card, containing a unique number that a voter would use in federal elections for life. Voters would have the option to provide a thumb print, so that if the voter forgot the I.D. election officials could verify identity with the thumb print.

Congress could create such an agency tomorrow under its power to establish the rules for Congressional elections. The board or czar should be nominated by the president, and subject to a 75 percent confirmation vote in the Senate, to assure bipartisan consensus. The board would have its own budget and autonomy, like the Federal Reserve. It would set the basic rules for running federal elections: design the registration system, produce the cards, pick the voting machines and design a uniform federal ballot.

Doug Lewis of the National Association of Election Officials, as he has for years, thinks it shouldn't:

Whenever partisans decide that they don't like the election practices fostered by state legislatures, there is a push to get Congress to pass national election laws. The clarion call is that we need "uniformity," forgetting all the benefits and strengths of our diversity ...

America's founders, who had lived under the tyranny of central control, determined that the best way to prevent autocratic control of elections was to make sure that the decisions were made at the state and local level. They so distrusted strong central control that they made it exceedingly difficult for the federal government to have a major function in the election process.

While that has lead to a system that can differ from state to state, it has also meant that it is very difficult to steal or manipulate an election in the U.S. Because there are so many variations of election practices, it has the practical impact of protecting the integrity of elections. The value of that feature alone should not be underestimated ... voters of each state seem to prefer the method of voting that they are used to, which was designed by and for their citizens.

American democracy works exceedingly well throughout the United States and in local communities because the men and women administering the process are part of that community. Since 2004 surveys show that 86 to 92 percent of voters have confidence that their vote was counted fairly and accurately. That is a very strong endorsement for keeping the process administered at the local level under state laws and practices.

That's a pretty sharp disagreement - but, as they say on the Internet, is that a thing? In other words, is there really a looming legislative battle over nationalizing election administration?

I don't think so.

While the virtues of uniformity versus localization have long been a a feature of election debates - and should continue to be - I don't see a policy fight about this issue anytime soon, for two key reasons:

First, the federal government can't agree on much of anything right now. Divided control of the federal government - fed by divided politics across the nation - means that it is highly unlikely that a fundamental reworking of the nation's election system will go anywhere.

Second, the federal election infrastructure is currently in varying stages of shambles, gridlock and controversy. Right now, the three legs of the federal election "stool" are each plagued by deep uncertainty: the Election Assistance Commission is essentially shut down for lack of commissioners and staff, the Federal Election Commission is locked in partisan stalemate over the role of money in American politics and the Department of Justice is facing Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.

For these two reasons alone, I don't see any set of circumstances that leads to a successful effort, let alone a meaningful debate, over nationalization in the foreseeable future - and even if such a debate occurred it isn't clear what the results of such an effort would look like.

I think there will be lots of opportunities to look for emerging national standards in election administration (which, in my opinion is a middle - and doable - way between the two poles), but right now I think any kind of formal debate over the merits of nationalization is premature and risks distracting us as a community from actual reforms to the ways in which we register to vote, cast and count ballots across the country.

Because that, in my opinion, IS a thing.

1 Comment


  • The only time nationalization makes sense is if we go to a popular vote system. Then it would need to be mandatory, or it could violate the 14th Amendment. Otherwise, with the state-based system of elections and the Electoral College, it is unnecessary. States would need to agree on registration timelines, felon voting rights, allowing or not allowing early or mail-in voting, etc. which is not going to happen any time soon.

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