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
– Voter identification requirements which vary greatly.
– The period during which votes can be cast and counted varies
– 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
– 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.