January 25, 2021
New Orleans Given the chaos over the recent federal election still a fresh memory for many and an open sore for others still questioning its legitimacy, one early test of resolve in strengthening US democracy, is a bill to standardize more of the elements of federal elections. Reviving the so-called For the People Act, introduced in Congress two years ago only to die later in the Senate under the Majority Leader O’Connell’s thumb, is a fast-tracked priority to achieve some of these objectives and high on the wish list.
Part of the American election mess and the open invitation to partisan hijinks and even determined voter suppression lies in the fact that the Constitution gives Congress the right to determine the rules for federal elections, but leaves everything else about elections and their administration to state and local governments. With Congress temporarily under control of the Democrats, they are moving to mandate early voting, same-day voter registration, and other reforms. Even if successful, this is a train moving on the same track from two different directions since some states, Georgia, Arizona, and Texas for examples, have already indicated that they want to restrict early voting, mail ballots, and other issues. This won’t be pretty.
The act also seeks to establish a nonpartisan, independent commission that would have the task of drawing congressional districts in order to stop blatant gerrymandering, and achieve some reforms triggered by excesses of the Trump-era like disclosing donors, creating requirements for online political ad reporting and requiring presidents to disclose their tax returns. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, the incoming chair of the Senate Rules Committee, claims that the bill could move through her committee and be on the floor for a vote as soon as early February. If you hear the whistle blow, it might be this train coming in.
Given what we have seen in recent years, it’s hard to believe. Whether this bill can solve all of the issues is also questionable. Will it allow all voters to obtain mail ballots or only voters able to meet various local requirements on valid excuses? How will the issue of postmarks on mail ballots that are permitted be handled and can that be regularized? Issues like same-day registration being contemplated by the bill have been war zones for many election cycles in many states. Add all of that to the number of states where Republicans control state legislatures and even if successful, count on lawyers being busy with challenges and the court dockets becoming crowded from local venues to the Supreme Court on these issues.
Nonetheless, one thing is certain. This is a fight worth having at all levels, if we want to continue to pretend to be a democracy.