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The Democrats’ “For The People Act” ain’t it. Increasing numbers of people are waking up to realize that HR 1, passed narrowly by the US House of Representatives late Wednesday, may qualify as the worst legislation ever adopted by one of our congressional chambers. That’s no exaggeration. Having said that, House Democrats passed a similar bill in the past (2019), but with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate, it didn’t matter.
It does now. If Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kristin Sinema (D-AZ), both Democrats who claim to oppose ending the filibuster cave on the matter, with this bill as its vehicle, it could become law. Fingers crossed. It may be a close call. Pressure will no doubt be applied.
I won’t go into the bill’s voluminous flaws here. That’s been done extensively and in great detail by several excellent organizations and journalists, including the Public Interest Legal Foundation, the Institute for Free Speech, the Heritage Foundation, and others. A quick, top-line summary can be found here, courtesy of the Washington Examiner.
Just one comment about the bill that’s not receiving adequate attention: its provisions to provide a generous subsidy of taxpayers dollars to congressional and presidential campaigns. US Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) describes it in this TheHill.com oped:
H.R. 1 creates public subsidies for campaigns through a six-to-one taxpayer match on small-donor campaign contributions of up to $200. For every $200, the federal government will pay $1,200 of taxpayer dollars to a congressional or presidential campaign. Meaning regardless of whether you support my bid for reelection, $1 million in public funds would have been to get me reelected last cycle had H.R. 1 been enacted.
Rep. Davis’s claim is being slammed by the Washington Post’s so-called fact-checker, but others are independently making the same assertions.
Here’s the real issue. It is not just “voter suppression,” and it is not necessarily “voter integrity.” People are losing confidence in their elections. And when that happens, it makes it harder to honor and accept the “winners,” and for those who lost to accept the results. It is incredibly destabilizing to have elections constantly questioned and the integrity of our elections challenged. That never ends well.
The Issue: how do we fix our elections so people have confidence in the results, win or lose? I don’t want losing candidates or politicians claiming for months, if not years, that elections were “stolen.” Democrats pulled that stunt after 2016. Donald Trump and many of his supporters famously followed suit after the 2020 election.
I have some experience with elections. I’ve served as a poll worker (Virginia, 1996). I’ve served as a poll watcher (Pennsylvania, 2020). And I’ve worked for, consulted, or helped manage some 35 US House and Senate races in 25 states over nearly 3 decades. I’ve been involved in close elections and one congressional recount. I was also nominated to the Federal Election Commission by President Bill Clinton in 1996. I’ve been working on election and election reform issues for a long time.
The long-standing tension between Democrats and Republicans is “voter integrity” vs. “voter suppression.” Everyone I know has long advocated for free and fair access for all eligible voters, Democrat or Republican. Sure, there are instances of real voter suppression out there, to threaten or intimidate voters from showing up. Fortunately, they are rare. There are also instances of voter irregularities, illegalities, and fraud. This notable New York Post story outlines how consultants advise campaigns on how to cheat. It happens. It is not as rare but is usually not so voluminous to affect most election outcomes.
Following the November 2020 election, Rasmussen Reports polling showed that 47% of respondents believed the election was “stolen” from Donald Trump, including 61% of Republicans. Twenty-nine percent of “unaffiliated” voters agreed. That’s a lot and is very disconcerting. No matter whom you supported, or whose “team” you’re on, you should want elections resolved quickly, fairly, and transparently, with people accepting the results and moving on with their lives and the business of government.
So, how do we restore confidence in our elections?
For the record, most Americans have no issues with elections where they live. I was a poll watcher in Edgmont Township, Pennsylvania, this past November. It was one of the best-managed precincts I’ve ever seen. We were seated within close proximity of the election workers and the judge. We could see and hear everything, except how voters marked their paper ballots with pens (not Sharpies) provided by officials. Those ballots were run through a scanner to count and tabulate the votes. Paper ballots were kept and secured. Ballots with errors (such as voting for both Trump and Biden) were caught and resolved on the spot with a fresh ballot. We saw how expertly they handled both “spoiled” and “provisional” ballots. ID wasn’t required, but most voters showed them anyway to facilitate the process. Poll workers meticulously followed elaborate procedures to count and secure the vote. Dominion scanning machines seemed to work fine and were not connected to the internet (I checked). That’s how it is supposed to work. At least on election day.
But in several states, prompted by the pandemic, rules were changed in significant ways in several states, especially Pennsylvania. A private foundation subsidized official election activities in some of the state’s most Democratic Counties, including ballot “drop boxes” in predominantly Democratic areas. Requirements for signature verification of absentee ballots was removed by the State Supreme Court. Ballots were allowed to be received after election day and still counted in several states, including North Carolina. And then there was the issue of counting votes taking days if not weeks after the election. Texas and Florida had no problem, but New York, Pennsylvania, and many others did. None of that inspired confidence.
STATE PRIMACY OVER ELECTIONS
Many state legislatures, including Georgia and Pennsylvania, are moving legislation to fix many of these issues. And that’s where they should be largely resolved – at the state level. And that’s the first premise of my election reform proposal. It must be consistent with the US Constitution. The “times, places and manner” of elections was clearly left to the states, with Congress having the power to “make or alter” state regulations. Clearly, it was the framers’ intent for elections to be locally run with some uniformity – such as a nationally established voting age, a national election day, etc. – set by Congress. Congress has also stepped in with several laws, such as the Voting Rights Act and others, to end discriminatory activities.
Having said that, there’s a way for the federal government to help states with several important objectives to facilitate voter access and voter integrity. We can do both.
We have had two major post-election commissions – both led in part by former President Jimmy Carter – that provided a path that Congress largely adopted. Congress allocated funds for states to clean up their voter rolls. Some states have done a very good job of maintaining their rolls, such as Colorado and Oregon. Others, including Pennsylvania, have not. “Vote by mail” schemes do not work if voter rolls are not up to date.
CLEAN UP VOTER ROLLS
Congress should again provide funds to states that follow prescribed procedures to update and maintain their voter files. For example, at least annually, voter files should be matched against Social Security death records and the National Change of Address registry maintained by the US Postal Service. Some states do this, others, not so much. There is a problem of dead people voting in several jurisdictions. Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act provides several other means by which voter rolls should be checked and maintained for accuracy. Frankly, they’re not followed by many states and localities. The Public Interest Legal Foundation successfully sued Los Angeles County to force them to clean up their dirty rolls.
Perhaps Congress could establish a national voter registration registry by which states (and independent organizations) can easily check and correct records when voters move. Duplicates can be checked, challenged, and corrected. National voter databases make some people nervous, but it is a way to address dirty state rolls.
MAKE IN-PERSON VOTING THE GOLD STANDARD
Neither of the Carter Commissions envisioned a move towards vote-by-mail systems. Neither did they foresee the coronavirus pandemic. Never mind that there was never any evidence of viral spread from in-person voting in 2020, and the Centers of Disease Control assured the public that voting in person was safe if certain procedures were followed.
Voting early in person is also a good way to give people other options. But how early? Two weeks? Two months? States like Virginia allowed early voting more than 30 days in advance, before even the last debate occurred in 2020, and absent late-breaking information that may have changed their minds. Two weeks seems more than generous.
A ROLE FOR ABSENTEE MAIL VOTING – AND DROP BOXES
The United States is different from the rest of the developed world in many ways, but one sticks out – nearly every developed nation bans voting by mail, some even for citizens or subjects living abroad. A few allow it under very strict circumstances.
While some states like Colorado and Oregon seem to have made universal mail voting work fairly well, it is expensive, cumbersome, and still not as secure as voting in person. Still, for those who are infirm or on travel, the ability to vote by mail or by secure drop box should be provided.
As a general rule, however, ballots should NOT be sent to voters unsolicited. Mail ballots should be affirmatively requested by registered voters, whether online or by mail. Ballots should be returned and received by election officials no later than election day. Election bureaus should be able to process such ballots upon receipt, to facilitate counting. Those who are recorded as having mailed a ballot should not be allowed to vote on election day, and only then by “provisional ballot” to be separately adjudicated by election judges following the election. Many states, to their credit, allow for online tracking of your ballot, simply by providing an email address. It seems to work.
In addition, and this is important, signature verification must be required for mail-in ballots until technology provides an equal or better means to verify the voter is who they say they are. Ballot integrity is not “voter suppression.” And no absentee ballot or ballot requested should be “forwarded” to another address by the US Postal Service. Most states prohibit it, but there are instances where ballots or ballot applications are forwarded, anyway.
What about “drop boxes?” If they are located in secure areas with ample video monitoring, then all good. States should act to require standards for their security, monitoring, and ballot collection (no private funding), with penalties similar to those for criminals who tamper with official US mailboxes. After all, the US Postal Service has lost the confidence in many of us to handle mail volumes these days. Drop boxes are a viable option.
One more thing. A major change in this election, at least where I voted last year, was the handling and tabulation of absentee or mail ballots. Before the pandemic, in Pennsylvania, absentee ballots were sent back to the voter’s precinct for tabulation and counting. With the pandemic (and a lot of private funding – see below), that tabulation was moved to a single location and handled separately, and with less supervision and transparency. In the future, Pennsylvania and other similarly situated states should resort to past practice – let the home precinct handle and count mail ballots.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002, as well as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, expanded ways to register eligible voters. When I applied last week for my new Virginia driver’s license, I also registered to vote and disclosed where I had previously been registered. I affirmed under penalty of law that I was a legal citizen (I was applying for a REAL ID, so I had to provide evidence of my citizenship anyway). But some states now provide driver’s licenses to those ineligible, but still register them to vote. The “For The People” Act protects such people from being prosecuted. States should be penalized for registering ineligible voters.
What about election day registration? That’s a terrible idea. How are states and local election bureaus supposed to verify eligibility on the day of an election? They can’t, so a reasonable deadline to register is appropriate – most states require 15-30 days. They can decide what they need, but election day registration is a cumbersome process for local officials and an invitation to fraud.
MORE BALLOTING LOCATIONS
One issue raised by election reformers is the wait times at precincts. That’s a fair point. We rarely had long wait times at my Edgmont Township precinct, but many do. States and local governments should invest more to open up more security voting locations where lines have been a problem. Mandating limits on “wait times,” as the For The People Act does, is absurd and unhelpful.
VOTING TECHNOLOGY – RETURN TO PAPER?
Much has been made about certain voting machines, whether they were attached to the Internet or their result sent to foreign servers, etc. I have no idea what the truth is. But we should ask Canada why they conduct their elections strictly by paper ballot. We’re a lot more populous than them, and there are trade-offs, but if we’re to have integrity restores in the process, we need to take a serious look at the technology being employed and how reliable it genuinely is. The Election Assistance Administration, created by the Help America Vote Act, was supposed to help this area. Clearly, there are issues.
With increasing the number of voting booths and locations, perhaps jurisdictions should seriously consider a return to paper-only voting, or at least paper ballots run through verified and tested scanners.
Many Democrats claim that requiring voter ID is “voter suppression.” Poppycock. There are scores of life’s activities that require identification, but not for voting? Makes no sense. Most Americans support requiring some form of acceptable identification to vote. Further, from a new study on the impact of voter ID on voting:
“…we find that the laws have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.” In fairness, they also have little impact on voter fraud. So yes, “reform” efforts are better placed elsewhere, not here. Requiring identification is not “voter suppression.”
NO PRIVATE SUBSIDIES OF OFFICIAL ELECTION ACTIVITIES
The Center for Tech and Civil Life, a center-left election reform non-profit based in Chicago, received more than $400 million in grants from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The organization used those funds to subsidize official election activities in some 2,500 precincts, mostly in support of mail and early voting systems and functions. My former home county of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, received $2.2 million. Interestingly, where Zuckerberg dollars flowed, Biden’s margin of votes over those for Hillary Clinton four years previously skyrocketed.
In many states, it is illegal to allow private subsidies of official elections. It is not rocket science to figure out why. Private dollars can be applied to provide special access to certain voters in specific locations to advantage one party or candidate over another. This may have been the case with the Center’s contributions, at least in Pennsylvania. Congress should outlaw private funding of official elections, period.
NO BALLOT HARVESTING
Ballot harvesting is outlawed in many states, and for a good reason. It allows “third parties” to go door to door, church to church, food bank to food bank, to collect ballots and drop them off at election bureaus. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how the process can be abused, including “helping” people cast their ballots or tossing those from people who may not have voted “the right way.” It was used illegally to sway a congressional election in North Carolina – for a Republican, by the way. Democrats and Republicans demanded and won a new election (which Republicans won).
The House “For The People” Act not only condones but institutionalizes and legalized ballot harvesting. That’s a horrible idea and must be rejected. Congress should outlaw, not condone ballot harvesting.
These are not new or necessarily controversial ideas. Some of these proposals will be favored by Democrats, such as increasing balloting locations and drop boxes (so long as they are evenly and fairly distributed, and well-supervised). Republicans will support Voter ID requirements, signature verification on mail ballots, and a return to “in person” voting.
One final note: Campaign finance reform should be handled separately from election administration. There is a good case to be made for reforms in how our federal campaigns are financed. Our politicians spend too much time fundraising. Disclosure rules can be improved. Public financing, however, as proposed in HR 1, is a non-starter for many Americans, and rightfully so. Why should your tax dollars be used to subsidize campaigns of candidates whom you do not support? And yes, there is too much money in politics, but the best way to shrink that is to reduce the size and scope of government.
The question is, do we want to win at all costs, or do we want free and fair elections that everyone – winners and losers – have confidence in, no matter the outcome? It seems House Democrats have chosen the former. But we should not – must not – give up on the latter. It is a cornerstone of our democratic republic.
It is a principle that thoughtful Americans of both parties should be able to embrace and pursue. We can quibble on the details, but this framework is both bipartisan, fact-based, and common sense. It shows how we can increase voter access while ensuring the integrity of our elections. Why can’t our politicians in Washington figure that out?Published in