Dust settles in a presidential election in the United States led in the face of an unprecedented health crisis and a campaign of disinformation unlike any other in history.
The 2020 competition again shed light on one of the most decentralized electoral systems in the world and sparked new calls for increased electoral uniformity across the country.
In the United States, national elections – those for President and Congress – are administered by local and county officials, usually following policies and procedures established by the state.
As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) noted, these systems have developed “organically” within the particular context of each state “and there is quite a bit of variation in electoral administration even within states. “.
In some ways, the 2020 election made it clear the importance of spreading authority across the country amid President Donald Trump’s widespread campaign for the results.
“One of the reasons why [Trump’s] bluster was not able to have more of an impact on how the elections went, it’s because it’s so decentralized, and because you have these independent actors at the local level, ”Lawrence Norden, director of electoral reform at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Al Jazeera.
Yet throughout the election season, a wave of new and varied policies, mainly linked to the increase in postal voting in light of the pandemic, worked alongside Trump’s baseless fraud claims to confuse the electorate, Norden said, stressing the need to better standardize the conduct of the elections.
“There are a number of things in this election that have demonstrated the need for a common set of minimum standards,” he said. “There were states and communities that were trying to meet the enormous challenge of holding an election during a pandemic. You had different rules that changed in different states and courts upholding or rejecting those changes. “
“Not having uniform standards creates confusion both for voters and even for those who administer elections,” he said.
Specifically, inconsistent policies regarding when postal ballots should arrive and when state election officials could begin tallying those votes created a so-called “red mirage” that showed the president was head in the hours following the closing of the polling stations, only for this advance to dissipate. in the following days.
Weeks after the competition, early confusion remained at the root of Trump’s repeated and baseless claims that the election had been “rigged” or “stolen.” Polls show these claims continue to resonate within his party, even after the Electoral College voted for President-elect Joe Biden on December 14.
Culture and Politics
Voting procedures remain a charged political issue in the United States. This, coupled with an aversion to federal government involvement in election administration, has historically made it difficult to sell more standardized national procedures.
In many ways, the current system – which the Government Accountability Office says is made up of approximately 10,500 unique voting systems – has been steeped in American culture since its inception.
It is “really a reflection of the story of how the United States came together in the 1700s, when it was a collection of colonies and states that agreed to have some kind of weak central government. to coordinate their activities, ”said Barry Burden, the director. from the Election Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Still, according to Norden, there are areas that could see bipartisan support for federal reform in the coming months, including prescribing or at least defining stronger guidelines for voting machines that leave a paper trail, audits uniform voting materials and a more uniform definition. postal voting standards.
The latter point, Norden noted, had been viewed more as a “geographic issue” and not overtly political “until this year” when Republicans took hold of the practice in an apparent attempt to discourage democratic participation in key states. .
‘Telephone alarm clock’
Despite historic legislation – including the creation in 1845 of a unified voting day; the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which attempts to prohibit clearly discriminatory electoral practices; and the creation in 1975 of the usually deadlocked Federal Election Commission (FEC) which regulates campaign finance – moves towards federal normalization of state policies have remained relatively weak.
The most vehement attempts came after the 2000 presidential election, which served as the most important “wake-up call” to the pitfalls of inconsistent electoral systems, Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and of democracy at the University of New Mexico, told Al Jazeera.
In that contest, obsolete voting machines in Florida led to a protracted dispute over what ended up being a margin of 537 votes.
“Before Florida, we hadn’t really looked at how much election administration varied across the country,” Atkeson said. “Everyone thought, before 2000, that the electoral system was pretty well run.”
In the aftermath of the conflict, Congress passed the most comprehensive federal electoral administration legislation in history, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).
The law established the Election Assistance Commission, which funnels money allocated by Congress to individual states, subject to meeting minimum standards of voting administration, primarily focused on voting materials.
However, the CAE “has no executive power. He can’t write rules, he can’t make regulations, ”Burden said. “There are no reports of violations or anything like that. He doesn’t even develop policy proposals for Congress.
“It makes it a more benign agency,” he said.
“ Elections, a resource to be protected ”
In one paper published Nov. 4, Lee Drutman, senior researcher at progressive think tank New America, and Charlotte Hill, board member for FairVote, discussed how Congress could create a “Federal Election Agency” that would set standards and, above all, powers to enforce these standards.
“We can think of it as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but with democracy and elections as the resource to be protected,” the duo wrote.
“The Federal Elections Agency would similarly research, monitor and enforce election laws, made possible by strong congressional legislation,” they wrote, noting that the creation of such an agency would almost certainly require Democrats take control of the Senate, which will be decided by two ballots. races in Georgia in January.
Voting rights advocates also back the so-called People’s Law, which was passed by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in the last legislative session, but languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The legislation aims to standardize voter registration and early voting, but also contains more politically charged provisions, including the uniform restoration of the voting rights of those previously convicted of felony and the restoration of key provisions of the Law on voting rights that had previously been gutted by the Supreme Court.
The Conservatives also presented possible federal action with Kay James, the president of the Heritage Foundation, arguing in a Nov. 14 article that said Congress and state governments should pass more uniform vote identification laws, which critics say amounts to voter suppression. Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, on Twitter, also called for a uniform voter identification law and limits on postal voting across the country.
While there has been a “gradual ramp toward more uniform experiences across states and more federal coordination” for decades, Burden added that given deeply polarized politics in the United States, sweeping changes to short term remain unlikely.
“It is very likely that this will be an ongoing gradual march towards increasingly federal participation and oversight,” said Mr. Burden. “I think it’s probably going to continue, but it’s probably not accelerating.”