The most bitterly partisan issue rattling the halls of Congress these days is almost certainly the Democratic Party’s push for nationwide election reform. That battle is about to heat up considerably with the news that on Tuesday, May 11, the Democrat-controlled Senate Rules Committee will hold a hearing on advancing election reform legislation, designated S.1. Democrat attempts to get the bill to the Senate floor have already inspired one verbal altercation between the leaders of the two parties, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
While Democrats insist that this legislation is designed to protect the integrity of elections against Republican attacks, the Senate minority believe that their opponents are trying to prevent states from enacting common-sense election laws that protect against fraud and abuse of the electoral system.
War of Words
“Instead of doing what you should be doing when you lose an election in a democracy, attempting to win over those voters in the next election,” said Schumer during a March 24 hearing on the legislation, “Republicans instead are trying to disenfranchise those voters. Shame on them.”
“Talk about shame,” McConnell retorted. “If anybody ought to be feeling any shame around here, it’s turning the FEC into a partisan prosecutor, the majority controlled by the president’s party, to harass and intimidate the other side. That’s what you ought to be ashamed about.”
So crucial is this legislation for the future of democracy in America – safeguarding it or destroying it for many years to come, depending on your viewpoint – that a lot of people on the left are pushing Democrats to eliminate the legislative filibuster, thereby allowing them the opportunity to pass the bill with a simple majority.
A Constitutional Hurdle?
This is only one of the challenges that lays ahead, though. The states have the sole constitutional authority to establish the rules of their elections. It is all but inevitable, then, that several Republican-controlled states – or all of them – will take the Federal Election Commission to court, arguing that it does not have the power to regulate elections at the state level.
That the proposed legislation intrudes upon state powers is not merely a matter of opinion: if it passes, the bill will expressly forbid states from doing things like purging their voter rolls and requiring photo IDs. States will also be compelled to send out absentee ballots at least 45 days in advance of an election.
It has the hallmarks of a federal government takeover of federal elections. Republicans are mostly focused on what could be described as the authoritarian nature of the proposed bill, but perhaps more important is the uncertainty it brings to the electoral process. As things stand today, many counties across the nation are struggling to comply faithfully with the election laws enacted by their respective state legislatures. How the FEC is going to ensure universal compliance is open to quite a lot of speculation. The bickering over who is responsible for breaching which new rules, the potential lawsuits, the possible levying of penalties and the appeals against those penalties; it all adds up to a possible legal and political nightmare, whether one agrees with what the Democrats are attempting to do or not.
Will the proposed legislation save the democratic process or destroy it? It is, perhaps, entirely subjective, depending on one’s idea of what democracy should look like. One thing is almost certain, though: this bill, or something similar, will be a central point of conflict between right and left for the foreseeable future.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.