At almost 800 pages, before the inevitable amendments in the U.S. Senate, a sweeping new bill would rewrite many laws about elections.
It’s a hot topic because of recent events, culminating in former President Donald Trump’s incitement of a crowd to riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats want sweeping changes, maybe too many for our taste in one bill. But this is also a hot topic because many Republican-led state legislatures are eager to make sweeping changes of their own, raising legitimate fears that partisan games are played on voting procedures.
A spirit of inclusion and participation, not restriction, ought to inspire changes, whether at state or federal levels.
We once restricted voting to White men who owned property. Along the way, we included White women and Black people. As more people voted, we rightly worked to safeguard elections, but restrictions can end up suppressing participation. The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 significantly improved voting access and the new bill seeks to deal with the changes in law but also in attitudes: More participation is better. Easier voting procedures lead to more participation, particularly by voters of color.
Some of the new bill's changes deal with the political games in election law. It requires that legislatures establish nonpartisan commissions to redraw district lines for House and Senate elections, based on the results of the 2020 national census.
Makes a lot of sense. Our Legislature should do the same. We’ve urged them to do it many times, for not only federal offices but state and local offices.
Still, it’s a federal mandate for a process that has traditionally been left to the states.
The bill changes administrative details once left to states such as early voting opportunities and voter identification procedures at the polls, although by and large, the system worked even under the stresses of the 2020 elections.
Louisiana requires photo IDs to vote, but wisely does not rule out some forms of ID; some states refuse to allow college student ID cards, for example. And our state allows affidavits at polling places as an alternative for those without a driver's license or other common forms of identification. Should our state drop its proven methods because of a federal mandate under the new bill?
Many such questions should be asked during Senate consideration of this new bill, which is almost certainly not going to pass in its present form.
The chief House sponsor of the bill, John Sarbanes of Maryland, says that many of the recommendations come from deliberations of a bipartisan commission on elections. And the spirit of participation is encouraged at the highest level: President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to encourage voting access and expand access to voter registration and election information.
We nevertheless recall the remarks of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, rejecting the Trump-inspired protests against various states’ election procedures. Congress as “a national board of elections on steroids” would be a farce, McConnell said.
Let’s keep that wisdom in mind as Congress acts on election changes.