Local versus Federal Voter Regulations/Management

It’s my understanding that individual States (here in the US) and possibly even Counties/Districts/Cities have nearly complete control over what methods are used to vote, what methods are used to register and maintain voter rolls, and what the individual policies are regarding setting up and maintaining polling places. I don’t fully understand it, so feel free to correct me if this is mistaken.

Why is this allowed? I realize that the vast majority of elections are local, involving local positions, local issues and local politicians. I also realize that even Presidential elections are essentially local elections in that you are simply deciding where your states electoral votes should be going. But, with all the discussion of ACORN, Young Political Majors, Lincoln Strategy Group and probably tons of other voter “advocacy” groups working at the local level out of the view of the Fed there seems to be a ton of issues with oversight and local political bias at the local level.

Also, the horrible issues in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 had much to do with the fact that they had out of date and underfunded systems governed by local partisan elected officials.

It seems to me that the people in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts and Wyoming all should be voting the exact same way and have the exact same standards. It seems fundamentally corrupt that I might be using a different voting booth with different rolls than the people 40 miles away in my parents suburban town.

States with Republican leadership can set up their voter rules in a way that makes it easier for their presumed constituency making it harder for city dwellers to vote. States with Democratic leaderships can make it harder for states rural populations to vote. Both by simply effecting the distribution and location of voter registration and polling places. They can be more proactively corrupt by sending out of date or broken voter boxes to the opposite constituencies strongholds.

This is just he tip of the iceberg, especially when you consider the issues of voter registration drives and voter roll purges. Not only do the laws effect that so does the aggressiveness of the states enforcement and supervision.

It all begs the question, why do we allow something as important and presumably simple as voting to the whims of local interests? Why doesn’t the federal government come up with a standard rule that states must follow. I understand that the “states rights” groups would see this as some type of overreaching by the Fed, but the Federal Government has passed amendments about voting so it seems clear that the best interests of the people is to standardize this stuff nationally.

It also seems like it would save the states money (and save money overall) if the Fed took steps to make voting technology, rules and enforcement standard.

Is there any good reason for why we don’t all vote the same except for the fear of surrendering control/losing power over it?

Perhaps it is the way it is because no one cares…

The vast majority of the people I vote for on election day are running for local or state offices, and all the ballot questions are statewide. I only vote for 5 federal offices (Pres, VP, Senators, and Rep). Why should the federal government tell the state of MA how to register people to vote for Comptroller?

I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement but the majority of elections aren’t at the federal level and standards that apply there might not make sense at the local level.

There should be national standards for registration and national standards for voting machines.

The federal government certainly could impose national standards. The Constitution expressly allows them to regulate congressional elections and I undedrstand there are court decisions allowing for the same for presidential ones. States could opt to use seperate procedures and/or machines for their state and local races if they wish but it’s not likely they would. It would cost more money, after all.

As for why it hasn’t been done, there are several reasons. Don’t underestimate inertia, for starters. It’s always easier to not do anything. And there are the vested interests. State and local control tends to favor the incumbants since they might be at risk under a different scheme. And there’s the funding. Right now the federal and state governments push most of the burden for maintaining election infrastructure on exactly those units of government that can least afford it: local governments. In a choice between fixing roads or the sewage plant or the election machines, usually the latter loses out. With national standards that would no longer be an option so the roads and sewage plants and the like (stuff that the state and national governments can’t ignore) would suffer. So it would require a large investment from governments that are used to getting a free ride on elections to make things better.

Just my 2sense

I think this is the strongest argument for it. The fact that most (one could say all) voting is for local issues makes it ideal for the federal government to control it. They have no vested interest in the local races and therefore can better be trusted to act objectively. The fact that the same people who rely on the methods and machines are the ones who benefit from them seems inherently corrupt.

I understand the issues of inertia, but for the last 3 elections this has been a high profile issue. People have made Hollywood movies on the issue.

Financially, I think that it’d be a benefit. States and Municipalities already spend a lot of money on election stuff and Diebold and the likes have essentially no competition in the market. If the Federal government made a standard for it and had an open license for development then anyone could make them and there’d be market competition to keep the price down. Seems like a universal standard would be simpler to learn and cheaper to maintain.

The city of Cambridge MA allows 16-17 year olds to vote on local issues. (I think they are, or it was at least proposed. There were also proposals to allow illegal alien residents to vote on local issues. Cambridge is a fairly liberal town.) I don’t see any way to implement that if you have the federal government running the show. Local issues are not an item of federal control and you still have a lot of resistance to a “one-size fits all” model.

For better or worse, the US still divests a lot of power to the 50 states. Voting requirements differ from state-to-state and many (not all) people seem to accept that it’s all part of local control. Rules on convicts voting vary from state to state, for example. It’s complex, confusing, and inefficient at times, but it also allows lots of experiments and allows states and communities to set things up the way they like it. I think it would be a mistake for a rural state like Wyoming to be bound to the same rules as an urban state like NJ, for example.

On the other hand, uninterested remote bureaucrats from Washington wouldn’t be responsive to local needs and concerns, nor could they be help responsible for screw ups.

I don’t see how that’s relevant. The argument is that there should be one system for registration and one system for voting. The eligibility requirements can remain a local standard. All that should be handled is what the government defines as a fair and reliable process.

Omniscient, I can understand your frustration - election procedures are very confusing since every state has their own rules and then each local government adds in their own quirks - school board elections are the worst - usually some weird date in February or April or whenever the chicken entrails said what the best date would be…

The Election Assistance Commission has a decent site that helps voters figure out what their local laws are - or at least points you in the right direction. Created as part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. I’ll save most of my critiques of HAVA for another time, but why we needed a new commission instead of just reforming the FEC is beyond me. (How did this was passed by a Republican congress is the most amazing part.)

I would not mind a clear two-stage ballot process though - this mess on your right is for state and local offices - the mess on your left is for federal offices. Let the states have full control over state elections, but mandate federal standards for federal elections - but contingent on the feds kicking money to the states to meet those standards. The Voluntary Voting System Guidelines created by the EAC are nice, but slightly esoteric - the PDF is almost 600 pages.

There are several groups that push different model legislation for the states to adopt - Center for Democracy and Election Management has a good one. Verified Voting Foundation/VoteTrustUSA has one also as well as a good clearinghouse for information.

And we definitely need a model - over 1800 different bills proposed in state legislatures - this year! Over 1600 different state laws passed since 2001!

This site has some information on how other countries run their elections for comparison, but I would like to see some studies on what is considered an efficient and effective process - and if anyone has one.

I think reforming healthcare might be easier - probably cheaper too.

Not sure what you would consider an efficient and effective process, but I think what strikes most outsiders looking at the US system is the inefficiency of trying to have so many elections for all different levels of government on the same day, administered by the same election officials. And with a single ballot, where ballots are still used. That may have been a workable model when the US was smaller, without so many elected positions and before popular referendums, but now - just seems bizarre, at least to me.

Many of the comments on this page refer to this fact as the major complicating factor, as to why the electoral system is so decentralized, which in turn leads to so much variation from state to state and even within a single state.

In Canada, the elections for the three levels of government all occur at different times. That’s partly a function of the parliamentary system without fixed dates for election, but it’s also because each level of government is responsible for running its own elections. Since you don’t have to cram everything into one ballot, the ballots are much simpler - and in fact, paper ballots are used at both the federal and provincial level, because they are so simple. I’ve only voted with an electronic scanner at municipal elections.

In theory, if the federal ballot in the U.S. were completely separate from the state and municipal ballots, it could be very simple indeed, and would lend itself to national standards. You would just need a ballot for the presidential election, a ballot for the Representative election, and a senate ballot in those years where one of the Senators was up for election.

It’s adding on all the state governors, representatives, judges, plebescites and municipal stuff that makes it so complex, and requires de-centralized election administration, which in turn leads to so much regional variation.

I agree completely - it is bizarre to us insiders also. I have also moved around quite a bit - I will be voting for my sixth presidential election in the fourth different state. Learning the quirks each jurisdiction has is part of the ‘fun’ of moving.

But we don’t have all the elections on the same day - most of them, but not all of them. Like I said, school districts and municipal elections will have the weirdest days that don’t match the others - and lack the publicity as well. And while the general election is the same, most states have different dates for the state and federal primaries.

I guess for effectiveness I would want 1) highest possible legal turnout; 2)early voting; 3) non-partisan independent election commission responsible for all aspects of elections - voter and candidate registrations, referendums, financing (campaign financing and election financing), and especially responsible for redistricting - another complete mess in the US, etc. Preferably one at the federal level then another at the state level - with offices in each county, instead of the separate agencies or boards that we have now. I am sure there a few other details I am forgetting at the moment.

As far as efficiency - ya guys up north miss all the fun with only a five week campaign season - not nearly enough time to watch the other side completely fall apart. :stuck_out_tongue:

From what I have read, Canada and Australia seem to have pretty good systems, but not sure how transferable those systems would be to the US. The biggest roadblocks are inertia, the dominance of the two-party system to maintain that inertia, and its only at the top of the policy agenda during the actual elections - when the legislatures usually aren’t in session - or after the census, when activists will argue for ‘reform’, and then another curtain of window dressing is added, which only increases the confusion, rarely simplifies it - see HAVA 2002.

And it will always be trumped by economics, education, health care, welfare and all the other priorities of government unless a scandal like 2000 pushes it to the top. Hell, its fairly low on my priority list, and I want major reform - but I want universal health care and better funded education, roads, and mass transit first - and our asses out of Iraq. Oh, and clean energy*. It is possible to work on all of this at once - possible, but not probable…

*I dont need the pony though - save those for the little girls…

To answer the OP, the reason why the states have such complete control is because that is the way it is specified in the Constitution. Article II Section 1.2 says:

“Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…”

The 12th amendment changed the process so there were distinct electoral college ballots for President and Vice President - prior to that (1804) the person with the most electoral votes was President and the person with the second most was Vice President.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the Constitution that states that the citizens must have any direct say in electing the President. If a state wanted to, it could choose to appoint the electors based on the flip of a coin. There are amendments that say that the states cannot prohibit people from voting because of race or sex or failure to pay a poll tax, but the Constitution is set up so that it is actually the states who choose the President, not the people.

You do not directly vote for President or VP. You vote for an elector to represent you (your state, rather) in the election for Prez & VP. This is a state election, not federal.

This is completely irrelevant. No one is discussing the merits of the Electoral College and nothing in the Constitution or it’s Amendments is related the actual voting process, they only discuss what the votes’ meanings are.

I agree that there are always bigger issues, and there’s very little sexy about Election/Voting Reform from a popular standpoint, but unlike the other things you site it’s relatively easy to implement if a consensus were reached.

If a Federal Standard were established, one that was reliable, scalable, consistent and resistant to abuse you could pretty easily implement it in a set period of time. Supposing you came up with rules and a machine, the only roadblock left would be to build and distribute the new machines. That’s just money, small potatoes in the grand scheme of things compared to the other issues you cite. No need for innovation and it wouldn’t really have any great effect on society at large.

I’m not a lawyer nor have I studied the constitution much, but you could easily read that to say that the Federal government should have no right to tell the states how to register voters. They could suggest a method, but the states (who have full right to choose electors any way they want) could tell the federal government “no”. Some might adopt the rules, others might not.

It’s up to the state legislature and Congress can’t usurp that without violating the Constitution. You really have to get around that point if you want national standards for voting machines, voting rolls, etc. The best way to do that would be to give money to the states if they did things the right way, but you can’t make sure the states accept that. I think that’s what happened after the 2000 election, but without clear standards.

That would require an epic twisting, binding and raping of the English language. There’s essentially no ambiguity in that part of the Constitution. It reads:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

It says that the states are allowed to dictate how they select their Electors. It says nothing of Voters, and the fact that it expressly limits the Electors to “a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress” pretty clearly eliminates any chance that they could be talking about voters unless any state exists where Congress has invited all eligible voters as Senators and Representatives.

Cite? You are simply wrong. The state is responsible for nominating Electors, period. That’s the extent of the Constitution’s commentary on the subject. The fact that various Amendments exist in which Suffrage is defined and established pretty much solidifies the Federal Government’s reach in matters of voting rights. By your logic, the states would be able to individually decide that Blacks, Women and Non-Landowners couldn’t vote. The Motor Voter Act makes it quite clear that the Voter registration process is also within the purview of the Federal Government.

And it’s utterly and completely insane to somehow infer that the states have some inalienable right to decide what methodology they use to cast a vote.

It should be easy, yes, from a logistical standpoint. From a political standpoint, there are too many entrenched interests that prefer the status quo. I am hoping this election cycle sends a serious shock through those interests and the next administration and Congress will address this issue. Part of the Democrat platform is support for the Count Every Vote Act. I don’t agree with all of it (I dont like election day registrations), but it is a giant step forward by mandating no-excuse absentee voting and early voting. (And I am hoping Obama wins.)

But while it is small potatoes money-wise - and I think a solid return on the investment - all the taters are gonna get scrubbed pretty hard for awhile. I think next years budget is going be diced fairly drastically to reign in spending and try to reduce the deficit. Hopefully the year after it can squeak through.

I’m not completely up to snuff on the laws that are relevant and I only briefly skimmed the CEVA you linked to, but is it safe to assume that there seems to be a piecemeal approach to federalizing voting policy? The Motor Voter Act seems to be a step towards making things universally consistent, as does the CEVA. Is there any way each of these Acts is fundamentally different from my suggestion of a single, federal voting standard and implementation? I see a note of “improving voting systems” but that probably doesn’t do anything towards standardizing it.