Common Ground: Federalizing elections

In episode two of the Common Ground podcast, Danielle Meuret and Lexi Hamel discussed the Freedom to Vote Act. The Senate voted against voting rights legislation on Jan. 19 with a 52-48 vote. 

The bill addressed voting registration and voting access, election integrity, redistricting and campaign finance. Although the bill failed in Congress, many Americans continue to have strong feelings towards voting rights.

A key takeaway from the bill was the proposal of federalizing elections—something states have always had the responsibility for. This would give the federal government the right to set voter qualification requirements and how constituents vote. This is one of the biggest points of contention in the bill between Democrats and Republicans.

Why elections should be federalized 

Congress has the authority to regulate elections under the Elections Clause of Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution. This article ensures that Congress has the power to set voter-qualification standards as well as state elections.

States can marginalize a population’s ability to vote through tactics like gerrymandering, limiting access to voting and setting state voter-qualification standards—which favors the party in power.

In November 2021, Governor Spencer Cox signed HB 2004, a bill that finalized the map for four congressional districts in Salt Lake County. Republican lawmakers drew the map and ignored maps drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission.

HB 2004 is controversial because it redraws the county into districts that tend to favor the Republican Party. Utah also established that voting district maps are drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission, which HB 2004 ignored.

Without federal legislation that sets the requirements for an election, states can have their own voting laws.

In 16 states, voters must have a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot. Other states do not allow drop boxes for ballots which makes access to voting more difficult. 

There are different laws in each state for regulating whether felons can vote or not, if a voter can register early and other rules that regulate in person voting such as voter ID.

The U.S. government passed legislation as well as amendments to the Constitution that federalized certain voting standards during the Civil Rights Era including the 15th Amendment which prohibits racial discrimination in state and federal elections, the 19th Amendment which prohibits discrimination based on gender and the 26th Amendment which gives the right to vote to all U.S. citizens above the age of 18.

Congress has the power to federalize elections, and has done so before. Even though federal voting law seems unconstitutional because of its novelty, it is in Congress’ right to do so to make voting laws uniform across states. 

Why elections should not be federalized

Allowing elections to be federalized would give the federal government complete control over how elections run with public trust in government is near historic lows. Pew Research found that only about one-quarter of Americans have trust that the government will “do the right thing.”

Republicans fear that allowing the federal government total control over how elections are run will create more distrust within Americans. 

President Raegan said it best when he claimed the nine most terrifying words are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Congressman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin claimed that the recent voting rights legislation would “create confusion and distrust in elections,” and continued that it would, “[transform] the U.S. Attorney General into an unelected, unaccountable Election Czar with the power to change state elections law and circumvent state constitutional processes.” 

Local leaders are more likely to listen to their constituents than those at the national level. States like Georgia and Texas have listened to voters who have questioned the role of the federal government in elections. 

A statewide survey conducted by researchers from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found that a majority of Texans support the state’s election legislation.

“Senate Bill 1 ensures trust and confidence in our elections system—and most importantly, it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said. 

Voting is one of the most important civic duties Americans have. The federal government should not have the right to determine how elections are run. 

Finding common ground 

Hamel and Meuret found common ground in the idea of a federal holiday. If the U.S. made election day a holiday, then more citizens would feel encouraged to vote.

Article by: Danielle Meuret and Lexi Hamel

Photo courtesy of Element5 Digital on Unsplash