Enhancing Confidence in the Electoral System

By Matt Daley

There will be no shortage of analyses of the 2020 Presidential election in the coming weeks but, without regard to the final outcome of that election, the time has come to reform certain aspects of how the United States generally conducts elections. As governance issues go, this is not a daunting intellectual challenge. The American people have every right to expect that our elections will be conducted with integrity, transparency, and accountability by government officials. Court challenges aside, we also are entitled to know the results promptly. This is usually accomplished, but in close contests the lapses provide fodder for accusations that undermine public confidence in the system. Yes, in recent years we have seen instances of irregularities involving both parties. That said, there is not yet evidence of irregularities on a scale that would overturn outcomes.

The judicial system will – shortly I hope — resolve those complaints and allegations that are being brought this week. My present purpose is to look at modest measures that would enhance confidence in our future elections. A fair amount of confusion ensues from the fundamental reality that most of the legal underpinnings as well as the conduct our elections are the responsibility of the individual states as delegated to the counties within them. This produces a patchwork of laws, procedures, and requirements that vary greatly. It also produces electoral machinery of widely differing quality.

Herewith a few examples where changes could be effective in increasing confidence:

– Voter identification requirements which vary greatly.

– The period during which votes can be cast and counted varies significantly.

– Requirements for mail-in ballots vary. Does a mail-in ballot require a signature? Is the signature on a ballot compared with a specimen already on file? Does it require a witness? Are postmarks required?

– How is ballot harvesting defined and what rules apply to it?

– Does the entity conducting the election have the requisite physical infrastructure and trained personnel?

– Are observers, including the political parties, press, and non-governmental organizations allowed sustained (i.e., 24/7) meaningful (able to see ballots and read what is on them as well as how they recorded) access?

– Are the software systems effective and robust?

The examples stated above are illustrative, not comprehensive. Moving toward a more rational system will require nationwide standards and that means leadership from Washington and bipartisan cooperation. The good news is that the necessary steps need not be a matter of deep partisan division, although getting the issue sufficiently high on the political agenda will be a lift. Much of the resistance will come at the local and state level where opposition to Washington guidance is part of the DNA. There is also a constitutional issue in that the prerogatives of the states loom large in matters of elections. However, the Constitution permits Congress to pass legislation to override state jurisdiction, and there are ample precedents for setting Federal standards as a condition of receiving aid, e.g. in education and highway construction.

Reforming the electoral system may not be our highest priority. However, when it comes to increasing confidence, it is intrinsically desirable, relatively low cost and could be highly effective. The United States has funded electoral reform in more than a few countries with impressive results. We can do the same for ourselves.

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