Direct election of president requires uniform standards. But HR 1 won’t get us there.

Robert Robb, Arizona Republic
Published 4:00 a.m. ET March 14, 2021


Uniform standards are welcome, especially if we want a direct election for president. But the Democrats’ For the People Act is the answer. Far from it.

Arizona Republic

The direct election of the president would require uniform national election standards. HR 1 isn’t a good way to go about that.

Congressional Democrats are particularly proud of their election reform bill, H.R. 1, which they call the For the People Act.

They regard it as a necessary federal intervention to override efforts by Republicans in state legislatures to enact laws that allegedly suppress the vote, particularly in low-income and minority communities.

Republicans loathe the bill, regarding it as a federal takeover of decisions about the conduct of elections which, in our federal system, were intended to be made by the states. And the mandate of procedures that are vulnerable to election fraud.

The view here is different. And it begins with the belief that the time has come for the direct election of the president by popular vote.

Direct election of president requires uniform rules

As the time came in 1913 to have senators elected directly rather than appointed by state legislatures, acceptance of the democratic legitimacy of the presidency today requires direct election. The electoral college is an anachronism that long ago quit serving the deliberative function the founders intended.

If the president is to be popularly elected, there will have to be uniform election procedures set at the national level. No one can be deemed to have won a national popular vote unless the rules in all states are the same.

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Currently, states differ on voter registration requirements, how ballot can be cast, when they have to be received, and how they are to be counted. These differences are one of the reasons why the alternative some are pursuing, a compact between the states pledging their Electoral College votes to the popular vote winner, lacks democratic legitimacy.

However, independent of a constitutional amendment providing for the direct election of the president, Congress has the authority to set national election standards that are binding on the states. The Constitution does give state legislatures the power to prescribe the “times, places and manner” of electing senators and representatives. But it also says that Congress “may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.” Congress holds the constitutional trump card.

Not a good start at setting those rules

So, Congress can enact uniform standards for conducting elections for U.S. senators and representatives. And, since states aren’t likely to want different election procedures for state and local races, as a practical matter for all elections.

That said, House Resolution 1 isn’t the way to go about that. And the standards in H.R. 1 aren’t the ones that should be adopted.

The goal before the conduct of an election should be to have a voting list of people known to be eligible to vote. And voting procedures that ensure that only those eligible to vote do so.

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That, in turn, requires a deadline in advance of an election to register to vote in that election. And it requires ballot security measures that guard against cheating.

Democrats make a grievous mistake by indiscriminately conflating election integrity measures with voter suppression. Politics attracts people willing to cheat to win, on all sides. It shouldn’t require a scandal before sensible preventative measures are put in place.

H.R. 1 makes it easier for people to register to vote by creating additional portals to do so through interactions with various government entities. And it requires early ballot options, in person and by mail. If there are to be national standards, requirements such as these, making it easy to register and to vote, are reasonable.

But H.R. 1 also prohibits any deadlines to register to vote for a particular election, which makes ensuring the integrity of the voting list impossible. And it legalizes procedures susceptible to cheating, such as ballot harvesting, in which political activists have control of hundreds, even thousands, of ballots.

Broad agreement should be possible

People of good will on both sides should be able to agree on rules of engagement for fair and secure elections with broad participation. H.R. 1 isn’t such a good faith effort.

It’s a Democrat election junkyard that includes public financing of congressional campaigns, constitutionally suspect political speech disclosure requirements, a declaration about statehood for Washington, D.C., and denunciations of Supreme Court decisions about political speech (Citizens United) and voting rights (Shelby).

If there is to be the direct election of the president, the country will have to have a sensible discussion about uniform national standards for the conduct of elections. H.R. 1 isn’t it.

Robert Robb is an editorial columnist at the Arizona Republic, where this column originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter: @RJRobb


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