Federalizing Elections Doesn't Make Much Sense and Won't Save Democracy

The "For The People Act" was a flawed package that would have solved some problems while creating new headaches.


Arctic Village, Alaska, is about as remote a spot as you'll find in the United States. Tucked into a sweeping bend in the east fork of the Chandalar River, Arctic Village and its roughly 150 full-time residents live more than 100 miles from the nearest "metropolis"—that would be Fort Yukon, Alaska. Population: 582.

And yet, under the terms of a sweeping federal elections bill that hit a wall in the Senate on Tuesday evening, Arctic Village would have been required to keep its polling place open for 10 hours every day for at least 15 days prior to every future federal election.

"The whole town could practically vote in an hour," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska), pointed out Tuesday during a speech on the Senate floor that deconstructed some of the practical issues with the sprawling For The People Act. "When you nationalize something—when you have federal overall oversight—it ends up being a one-size-fits-all mandate coming out of Washington, D.C., that in many cases doesn't work in a place like Alaska."

Federalizing control over elections is a major goal of the bill, which would give federal officials a much-expanded role in regulating things that states have always been left to decide, like when polling places are open and how much early voting occurs. But in a country as diverse as America, one set of rules doesn't make sense everywhere. A possible solution to long lines at polling places in Atlanta creates a ridiculous and expensive mandate in places like Arctic Village.

"The bill that we have in front of us is not so much about voting rights as it is a federal takeover of the election system, and a partisan federal takeover of the election system," Murkowski said Tuesday. A few hours later, she joined the 49 other Republican members of the Senate in voting against a procedural maneuver that would have allowed the bill to come to the floor for debate—a vote that effectively kills the For The People Act's chance of passing into law anytime soon. (It cleared the House in March.)

The bill is a response to what Democrats see—with good reason, in some cases—as Republican-led attempts to undermine voting rights in some states. Efforts to disenfranchise voters should be steadfastly opposed at the state level, but senators like Murkowski are rightly hesitant to use the hammer of federal law to accomplish that goal.

That's not only because of the silly mandates it would impose on places like Arctic Village. There are also serious legal and constitutional issues with other parts of the bill, which would regulate political speech and mandate state-level behavior in ways the federal government has never before attempted. Even if you don't care about the First Amendment issues in the bill, they would guarantee years of litigation over its provisions.

Instead of creating more certainty about election rules, dozens of lawsuits and conflicting court rulings could create "messy litigation that leaves the state of election law uncertain for years to come," Murkowski said Tuesday. Imagine, for instance, if you had to understand the latest legal battles over Obamacare before being allowed to see a doctor.

What's more, federalizing elections to make them more secure might actually make them more vulnerable. Think back to the Republican-led efforts to disrupt the election last year. They were thwarted by state-level officials (including fellow Republicans) who applied the law correctly even when under intense political pressure from President Donald Trump and his top allies. If Trump had to exert pressure on a few federal officials rather than a diffuse network of state-level elections boards, most of which were staffed by people who owed him nothing and had little incentive to cave to his threats, would the outcome have been different?

These practical and legal concerns have been largely glossed over by the bill's advocates, who have framed the measure as the last stand for democracy. But the fate of America's democracy has never hinged on just one bill or one vote because most of our election systems are decentralized.

That said, there are many good ideas included in the For The People Act. Expanded early voting, automatic voter registration, and restoring voting rights to people who have served time in prison are worthy policies for increasing voter participation. Redistricting commissions, which the bill would mandate all states use for redrawing congressional district lines, are a decent solution to a messy problem. Banning states from using voting machines that don't provide paper trails for all votes would make elections more trustworthy.

But, as Murkowski argued Tuesday, those provisions could be considered separately from the "sprawling" proposal Democrats have been pushing. Though it is also fair to point out that Republicans were none too interested in a narrower proposal offered as a potential compromise last week by Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W.Va.).

Certainly, there is an element of partisanship to Murkowski's stance—particularly since she's facing the prospect of a Trump-backed primary challenger next year when her seat is up for re-election. But it would be wrong to dismiss her for that reason alone. For three consecutive congressional sessions, Murkowski has been the lead Senate Republican sponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bipartisan bill that would update the 1965 Voting Rights Act to require that states get federal permission before making changes to their voting laws in advance of an election. That's an actual, practical way to stop some of the shenanigans that states might pull in the future. Murkowski also voted to convict Trump for his role in the January 6 riot—hence why she faces a Trump-backed primary challenger next year.

In short, some Senate Republicans have no qualms about supporting attempts to undermine elections, but Murkowski is clearly not one of them.

"It will make administrating elections more difficult, more expensive, subject to federal micromanagement," she said. "My fear is that this measure does not lead us further down the path" to fairer elections.