As the 118th Congress begins their work and state legislative sessions begin around the country, many chambers will consider reforms to how elections are conducted. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, many of these changes will be motivated by the desire to elect candidates from one party over the other. But election procedures should be above politics and partisan warfare: They should represent an administrative exercise in translating the will of the people into positions of power. They should serve as a mechanism by which constituencies reward or punish incumbents for their performance in office. They should benefit the people and not parties or their candidates. Instead of pursuing their own partisan ends, policymakers around the country should focus on providing free, fair and secure elections.
Democrats and Republicans often bemoan electoral rules when their candidates are not successful. For example, when George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump won the Electoral College but not the popular vote in 2000 and 2016, respectively, Democrats called the Electoral College an archaic and undemocratic means of electing the most powerful office on the planet. And yet, after both of these presidencies, Democrats subsequently enjoyed unified control of government while never mentioning the Electoral College or potential reform.
Another topic that regularly enters the public conversation is statehood for the District of Columbia (D.C.) and Puerto Rico. Republicans commonly cite these two as being too small or unique to warrant statehood as reasons for opposition. They claim granting statehood would simply give Democrats extra seats in the Senate. But there are plenty of geographically small states (Rhode Island), physically distant ones (Hawaii) and more still with comparatively small populations (Wyoming). If statehood were granted, we’ve seen Republicans win statewide elections in other places with a strong Democratic lean (Massachusetts and Maryland). But winning in D.C. and Puerto Rico would potentially present a challenge for the party, and it’s easier to oppose reform than it is to campaign for votes. In place of these self-serving considerations, politicians should be focusing on doing what’s right for citizens.
In the 2022 midterm elections, a court case emerged centered on the question of whether to count Pennsylvania mail-in ballots that were received before Election Day but were not dated. Democrats argued that the ballots should be counted because it was clear they were submitted on time while Republicans argued that they were invalid because they did not have the required date on them. This is another in a series of instances illustrating how mail voting has garnered significant controversy in recent years. Republicans believe it benefits Democratic candidates, despite evidence to the contrary. This belief most likely motivates the positions each side has taken in the Pennsylvania case. Both would likely switch their positions if they believed it provided some sort of advantage. Very few policymakers—if any—are staking out positions based on improving representation or serving constituents.
Elections should be free, fair and secure, and those principles should be the sole motivating factors when considering election reforms. Yet many rules have been written and revised purely for partisan gain. For example, opponents to Alaska’s Final Four model claim it is too confusing and designed to simply elect Democratic candidates. But that’s not the case. This system ensures that the candidate with the broadest support wins. It just so happened that the Democratic candidate in the recent Alaska House race had the broadest support. Nonetheless, Republicans have begun the process to repeal the reform. Candidates know how to win under the existing rules, and they are hesitant to change those rules for fear of electoral defeat. Representing constituents and ensuring voter satisfaction are not a part of their equation.
This behavior is not only self-serving but also short-sighted, as reforms designed to benefit one party in some way often have adverse consequences in the future. For example, as one candidate in Nevada argued, opposition to mail-in voting may have cost the party numerous seats at multiple levels of government. Many Republicans railed against the practice in recent years, leading conservative voters to prefer in-person voting on Election Day. However, on Election Day in Nevada, voters were confronted with bad weather and long lines, discouraging some from participating. This was likely determinative in some cases, as many races in the state were decided by very narrow margins.
Various levels of government will continue debating changes to how elections are conducted in the United States. But both parties continue to act with a lack of sincerity and consistency when it comes to electoral reform. Policymakers should focus on providing free, fair and secure elections instead of pursuing their own partisan ends. Doing so would represent a boon for constituents, elections and our democratic form of government.
Image credit: JJ Gouin