"Donald Trump is an illegitimate president." -- Hillary Clinton
"Joseph Biden would be an illegitimate president." -- Donald Trump
Such reactions from defeated candidates, dutifully echoed by millions of their followers, cripple a victorious president’s ability to govern. Seventy Democratic members of Congress did not attend Donald Trump’s inauguration, and Trump himself may pass on Biden's. This grievance-filled mentality damages our national interest. We need to tackle the root cause.
Some 68% of Republicans (and 36% of all voters) believe that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump. I’m convinced they are wrong, but I’m even more certain that our current path is unsustainable. We need to standardize national elections to convince even the most partisan Americans that our nation’s voting process is open, fair, and secure without the whiff of a tainted odor.
With the Democratic Party’s razor-thin margin in the House – and all the future infighting that implies – along with a nearly evenly divided Senate regardless of the outcome in Georgia, the Biden administration will find legislative victories difficult to come by. The best way for the new president to fulfill his promise as a "unifier" is by shepherding into law meaningful election reform.
Like most Americans, I am a sucker for the idea that one honest person can make a difference. I still get choked up while watching black-and-white reruns of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” when James Stewart collapses on the Senate floor while fighting for his principles. No one expects such heroics from Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer (or even Joe Manchin or Susan Collins), but we need someone, or some thing, to help us salvage our national psyche.
The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, delegated the management of elections to the states, but problems have arisen. The typical federal government mission creep has resulted in dozens of federal departments, agencies, numerous laws, and many congressional committees carving out a slice of election oversight. This is the classic government solution: a layering of committees, commissions, and agencies -- and when many have authority, none have authority. The security of our elections is hostage to a numbing, regulatory morass in Washington and the state capitals.
The current state-by-state system for federal elections is a confusing hodgepodge. Forty states offer online voter registration, while the rest require people to sign up in person. Voter registration deadlines vary by state, with a majority requiring registration before Election Day, but 20 states allowing registration on Election Day. Five automatically send absentee ballots in the mail, but 34 allow requests for absentee ballots without an excuse. Forty-two states allow early voting.
Obviously, the Supreme Court was right to rule that Texas can’t sue states such as Pennsylvania because it didn’t like the outcome of the 2020 election. But it’s just as obvious that all Americans have a vested interest in the smooth and scrupulous conduct of elections in every state.
Biden can be the healer he promises to be by blowing up the boxes on the organization chart, call on Congress to eliminate duplicative efforts, and create a sole, national regulatory board to oversee federal elections – and persuading all 50 states to buy in. Here are seven steps that would accomplish that goal.
- Protect against cyber hacks. Last month the cybersecurity firm Fire Eye was hacked. A cybersecurity firm! Malicious actors can be foreign countries or a pajama-wearing New Jersey teenager taking a break from playing “Fortnite.” We need a public-private partnership between the Department of Defense and our country's technology firms to ensure that our voting systems aren’t hacked or tampered with in any way.
- Photo identification is required if you rent a storage unit. Requiring the same identification to vote is not voter suppression; it is a minimal security step. Likewise, we sign for a credit card purchase (or a least we did before COVID restrictions led to “no-contact payment”); why not a mail-in ballot. Signatures must be verified on mail-in ballots.
- Standardize procedures to obtain an absentee ballot. In August 2020, in a special session and along strict party lines, the Nevada legislature had the state mail a ballot to every registered voter without verifying addresses or determining if recipients were alive or domiciled in the state. This was an invitation for mischief, if not fraud. The first step in preventing fraud is the ballot must be requested, although the hurdle of providing a reason for the request should be eliminated.
- Establish uniform time frames for when ballots are postmarked, received, and counted. Four states do not commence counting mail-in votes until Election Day; 20 states and the District of Columbia begin upon receipt; 27 initiate the tally by various times before Election Day.
- Establish uniform time frames for the opening and closing of polls. To encourage voting, either allow the presidential Election Day to be a national holiday or establish a three-day window from Sunday to Tuesday.
- Technology allows us to track the journey of a crate of tomatoes from farm to table, so that technology can establish a chain of custody for every ballot. Only 12 votes separated the candidates in New York's 22nd Congressional District, but the race took a dramatic turn when 55 in-person ballots were located with a Post-It Note attached. The local election board cannot determine if the votes were counted. StickyGate lives!
- No ballot harvesting. While this may impact legitimate organizations, no third party shall control or submit your ballot.
As I mentioned, the U.S. Constitution grants Congress expansive powers to devise, "make or alter" legislation regarding elections. The legislative key is to attach strings that would entice states to opt-in to receive financial resources to update their election hardware and software. Federal money is doled out to state and local governments regularly with conditions.
Biden can stand up to progressive Democrats who shout "voter suppression" over voter ID requirements, and dismiss conservative opposition to an Election Day holiday or weekend. Biden is an old-school Democrat, comfortable appointing blue-ribbon commissions that issue reports that then gather dust on a government shelf. Election reform burns with intensity and calls for action.
Federal legislation must avoid extraneous issues. Do not tamper with the Electoral College and avoid being dragged into the morass of gerrymandering. I served on the boundary review commission for the County of Los Angeles following the 2000 census. Yes, drafting legislative boundaries is packed with partisanship, but a federal board needs a singular focus to be effective.
The alternative to electoral reform — litigation smackdowns every two years with Supreme Court rulings that create an opening for one side to deem the winning candidate "illegitimate." We deserve better.