Virginia is for Voters

Virginia has a nonpartisan election board. The rest of us ought to (though we need a backer for the cause).

Lots of people are talking about how likely election chaos in Florida and Ohio—by design; the Republicans in charge of both states (in the case of Ohio, the Secretary of State more than the Governor) have done everything they can to make it as hard as possible for people to vote, in the hope that this will disenfranchise far more would-be Democratic voters than Republican ones.

Nobody is saying that about Virginia. Why not? It has a nonpartisan election board , whose website seems unusually helpful and informative. It does have a Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, but it doesn’t supervise elections: it’s basically a personnel office that vets applications for state commissions.

Why don’t more states follow Virginia’s example? Every state with a partisan—or, to my mind, nonpartisan—election for the election-watchers is an anti-democratic train wreck waiting to happen. Many states, including California, have a long tradition of elected Secretaries of State who have managed elections impartially, ranging from glorified nonentities like March Fong Eu to people who went on to grander things like the current governor, Jerry Brown. But lots of states that thought they had long traditions to this effect rapidly sloughed them off once the new breed of Republican got elected Secretary.

People who propose federal-level uniformity in how we run elections need to read the Constitution, which leaves election administration to the states (and leaves ratification of amendments to the states as well, which are not likely to take kindly to the suggestion that the federal government can supervise elections more reliably than they). But state-by-state campaigns for nonpartisan election boards would face no constitutional problems. Their absence reflects, presumably, the lack of an interested constituency with money behind it. If only Molly Munger had a stronger sense of civic virtue than of her own importance..for now, calling Nicholas Berggruen?

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

15 thoughts on “Virginia is for Voters”

  1. the Constitution, which leaves election administration to the states

    Confusingly, though, the federal government has greatly increased the number of requirements that states must meet (most importantly, disability access (which leads tot the voting-machine fiasco) and forbidding required in-person registration at a fixed office), and has simultaneously not enforced the one provision originally in the Constittution (as opposed to in an amendment), which is that only one day is election day. Most of the possible fiasco-scenarios in Florida and Ohio would be non-issues if registration were required.

    1. What is confusing about the Feds cutting back on State discrimination against potential and actual voters? Answer: nothing.

      By the way, the claim that folks somehow don’t have to register is incorrect.

    2. Sorry, that got cut off before the end:

      Most of the possible fiasco-scenarios in Florida and Ohio would be non-issues if registration were required in person in advance and there was no early voting.

      1. Sam, that’s an admirable sentiment, but incorrect. The big fiasco in Floida is suppression-by-delay. Look at the multi-page listing of all the ridiculous amendments, all printed in their entirety on the actual multi-page ballot. The lines were absurdly long at the early voting, due to the time it takes simply to read the ballot. Now try to imagine the delays if everybody had to vote on the same day.

        And this is no accident. Who is most likely to be turned away by interminable delays? It’s the aged and infirm, plus the low-wage hourly workers who can’t afford to take extensive time off from work.

        If you don’t think this was a deliberate ruse of the Republican legislature just read the full text of all those idiotic amendments, then say it with a straight face.

      2. That might be true if there were adequate numbers of machines, polling places, workers, etc.

        That there are not is a complete disgrace. I just went and voted. There were four people in front of me in line. It took less than ten minutes. This is not hard, people. You only have to try.

        1. Please note–I’m not arguing that elections would be fair in the case above; I’m not even arguing that they’d be more fair. I’m only saying that the likelihood of a scenario where the election could not be called on election night would be much lower.

          1. Wait, I thought you were talking about the likelihood of a scenario where the election results were skewed by people’s inability to vote. Who cares if we don’t know the election results on election night? I mean, as a politics junkie I would care a bit, but the country’s interest in a quick call pales next to its interest in allowing voters to vote.

  2. [I hope blockquote works here. If not… sorry.]

    People who propose federal-level uniformity in how we run elections need to read the Constitution, which leaves election administration to the states

    Nonsense. The Constitution:

    [Article I, Section 4]The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators. […] [Section 5]Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide. […] [Article IV, Section I] Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof. [Section 4] The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,

    Congress can do what it wants with regards to the election of members of Congress. (If they couldn’t ALL of the Voting Rights Act would be unconstitutional.) The exception is ‘the Place of chusing Senators’, but that was overridden by Amendment 17:

    The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.

    As for Presidential elections, Congress has regulated those for a long long time, particularly with regards to the procedure of choosing electors and this has been cited by no less than Antonin Scalia in Bush v. Gore.

    So the only question is whether Congress can direct the states to change their method of picking electors. I think they can, given the elastic clause and the extent of their powers. Certainly they could regulate voting in Federal elections and conjoin the two – they can determine which people are citizens for example.

    Where there might be real limits to the powers of Congress would be with regards to *State* elections. Although I think they can pass laws to regulate those to (because they have). I don’t know that Congress could order the the States to rename the office of Governor (for example) as the ‘Office of Dorks’ or something like that. Maybe.

    max
    [‘So. There we are.’]

    1. While I’m no expert on election law, it’s my impression that this article has been construed as much more favorable to state prerogatives than this. (I suppose that’s what I mean by “read the constitution”: I instinctively take a common-law approach, rather than strict construction, and apologize if I left a different impression.) At any rate, I’m told it’s not at all beyond the bounds of possibility that the Court in its next term will indeed strike down the Voting Rights Act–which would be unimaginable if everyone read Congress’ powers in this regard broadly. The federal-vs.-state distinction might also be serious: would Congress really want to mandate two different sets of election guidelines for state and national elections?

      But my main intended point was not that attempts at a uniform national election board were quixotic (though I think they are, for political if not constitutional ones) but that nonpartisan state election boards would be much easier to achieve. I think people overgeneralize from Jim Crow: the solution to every state shenanigan is not to federalize the question.

      1. Let’s not undergeneralize either. Nonpartisan, or even professional, state administration could work OK, but I think that the states absolutely should be subject to requirements similar to the ones Joe lists below. If the states want the responsibility to run elections, then they need to step up and accept responsibility for doing it correctly and fairly.

  3. This state-by-state report rates the e-voting security of Virginia as considerably lower than Ohio´s. The worst, as youd expect are the Deep South states: but then there´s no need for Republicans to steal elections there (nor Drmocrats in Chicago). Amomg the swing states, Colorado also ranks as poor.

    1. The link is broken, I’m afraid. You may mean this page: http://www.countingvotes.org/; or the chart state-by-state is supposedly at http://countingvotes.org/statechart but the relevant image doesn’t work.

      In any case, that organizations looks only at the security of voting machines–not at attempts to keep people from voting in the first place. I’m among those who think that the latter is much more serious than the former. Unambiguous violations of law are much easier to deter than attempts to warp the voting process under color (pun intended, unfortunately) of law.

      1. That´s the link, thanka.
        Electronic fraud ia a serious risk. It potebtially allows the fraudster to steal a whole result reliably, with little chance of detection, and in a paperless system without a possibility of corrrection. I assume that if you are good enough to hack the system, you are good enough to wipe the audit trail.
        Pegaps some Ukrainian teenage genius will think it amusing to have Alabama vote 99.9% for Kim Il Sung.

  4. Given the precedents of the Voting Rights Act, and (as SamChevre says) laws concerning accessibility of the poling place, Congress could probably require actions to maintain equal voter access across precincts. I can come up with a few examples off the top of my head that might reduce some of the problems we’re seeing now or have seen in the past:

    1. Require that all precincts have the same ratio of voting machines to registered voters.
    2. Require the same ratio of poll workers to registered voters across all precincts.
    3. With a nod to hanging chads in Florida, they could require that all voting machines have the same level of maintenance regardless of precinct.
    4. Voting machines could be randomly assigned to precincts the night before elections.
    5. As we’ve talked in the past, use of paper ballots to back up electronic voting.

    There must be other possibilities, but I have to get back to work.

    1. 6. Require a 10% audit of all voting machines. If the system fails the audit sample, hand count 100% of the ballots.

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