It was just 20 years ago that Congress provided a blueprint for how to create federal voting legislation in a truly bipartisan manner. When the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed in 2002, it received 98 votes in the Senate and 356 in the House of Representatives. The bill was built on compromise; it maintained state and local control of elections while beginning to carve out space for more robust federal involvement. Each of the bill’s big-ticket policy wins were the result of careful negotiation and relied on an incentivize-based grant structure.
Today, the challenges facing elections are sophisticated and deeply intertwined with virulent partisan divisions that risk undermining the heart of our democracy. Rather than capitalize on the momentum of the 2020 election to hedge a new beginning for voting in America, both parties have reverted to worn out talking points and partisan rhetoric.
Congress must look back to move ahead. The path forward on election reform is clear, simple, and rooted in America’s long legacy of cooperation and progress. The path forward requires only that Congress once again put American voters first and partisanship second.
The Bipartisan Policy Center has identified five pillars of pragmatic and sustainable federal election reform:
1. Bipartisanship to promote sustainable policy change and improve voter confidence.
For much of the last two decades, federal election reform initiatives have been largely partisan, materializing in different ways depending on who was in control. The majority House Republicans of the 2010s waged a multi-Congress campaign to eliminate the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and minimize federal involvement in elections. When House Democrats retook the majority in 2019, they launched a renewed effort to pass voting reforms that has so far spanned two Congresses (even reserving HR1 for the effort). Like with other party priorities, congressional majorities are taking an all-or-nothing stance. As long as each side demands that no piece of election reform move forward unless all their priorities are included, change won’t happen.
These federal efforts create a mirage of action for their constituents rather than effect real change. The current system now incentivizes lawmakers to propose expansive messaging bills that claim to be the solution to all of democracy’s ailments by addressing the likes of campaign finance, voting method availability, redistricting, and election security all in one fell swoop. Yet this kitchen-sink approach makes it difficult to pass any legislation, as the opposite party – and even members of the majority – can invariably find something in the all-encompassing bill to disagree with.
The solution to partisanship is not more partisanship. Only one outcome is certain when a single party tries to reform democracy alone: erosion of the opposite party’s trust in our governing institutions. Thus, in order to break through the bitter divisions on elections policy, Congress build develop targeted, balanced pieces of legislation that expand access and improve security.
2. Minimum standards that enable flexibility and standardization.
Election administration in the United States is highly decentralized, making a one-size-fits-all solution from the federal government a rather impractical task. Rather than attempt to retrofit a single voting system onto thousands of local jurisdictions, reasonable minimum standards—when tied with adequate funding—safeguard secure and accessible elections nationwide.
The BPC Task Force on Elections has provided a model for what these minimum standards might look like. The task force—a bipartisan group of 28 state and local election officials from 20 states—has unanimously endorsed a set of 21 best practices for election administration that could be the foundation of an incentive-based legislative framework.
Their recommendations exemplify a middle ground, incorporating many of the core components of both parties’ demands in the federal voting debate. For example, the task force’s recommendations include seven days of early voting (as opposed to the For the People Act’s 15 days), no-excuse absentee voting with some alternative return options, voter-verified paper ballots, and expanded preprocessing to diminish after Election Day delays. Above all else, these pragmatic minimum standards demonstrate that election policy that balances the requests of both parties, voters, and election officials is not only possible, but effective.
3. Regular, incentive-based funding for state and local jurisdictions.
Election administration is at a tipping point. Voters increasingly expect and deserve a wide variety of voting options, but election offices often lack capacity to expand operations without running up against real resource limitations. Election administrators have proven to reliably rise to the occasion and punch above their weight, but the key to a more secure and accessible system in the long term is additional funding.
The 2020 election was an administrative success in large part due to the record amount of private philanthropic funding that flooded into local elections offices. Yet even this funding has become polarized, and, in many states, it will no longer be legal for local administrators to accept it. The answer to concerns about private funding is to fill the gap in resources with reliable government funding.
To build a resilient elections system, federal funding should be regular, incentive-based, and allocated to state and local jurisdictions:
- Regular: Due to proactive budgetary planning, restrictions in state law, and the competitive market for supplies during an election year, it’s often difficult for election offices to utilize federal funds that are appropriated hastily in the immediate lead up to an election. Furthermore, election administrators cannot make long-term investments when they are not sure when the next batch of federal funds will arrive. For example, what many elections offices need are new staff expertise. But the way funding has worked incentivizes one-off capital expenses that may not be as effective. Funding that is distributed by the federal government on a regular schedule will maximize the impact of each dollar spent.
- Incentive-based: Incentive-based funding is the secret sauce of this proposal. Whereas a top-down system which attempts to compel state and local jurisdictions into compliance would likely end up stuck in the courts for years, incentive-based funding works with a carrot and not a stick. Jurisdictions that meet (or are working towards meeting) the set of minimum standards outlined above would receive federal funds on a regular schedule.
- Allocated to states and locals: Though states vary in the distribution of power between state and local election administrators, local election offices are almost always responsible for implementing new voting methods or implementing other administrative changes. Federal funds are often allocated to states based on the assumption that they will trickle down to local jurisdictions, but far too often that is not the case. To guarantee local election offices have the resources they need to administer free and fair elections, federal legislation must allocate funds directly to both levels of government.
In the past, federal legislation has required that a proportion of all funds dispersed be matched by state governments. A small match may widen the pool of funds available and increase political feasibility in Congress. That said, the level of funding needed for election administration is all but a rounding error in federal appropriations (after all, Sen. Klobuchar’s proposed $15 billion for elections would have been only .015% of the infrastructure package). Legislators should weigh the benefit of a state match against the potential costs of dissuading states from accepting funds and, ultimately, meeting the minimum standards.
4. Strengthened election security.
Local and state election offices alone cannot bear the brunt of protecting physical and cyber elections infrastructure. Rather, a coordinated, nationwide effort is the only way to sufficiently insulate our electoral systems from threats foreign and domestic.
Congress must provide funds bookmarked for election security to election offices, as well to federal bodies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to expand and fortify their election security efforts. As election security is a top priority of Republican lawmakers, this is a crucial component of any legislative effort that hopes to bring together the best ideas from both parties.
5. Reinvigorated U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC).
The EAC is chronically underfunded, leaving the federal Commission charged with ensuring accessible and secure elections without the resources needed to do their job right. In a May 2019 testimony before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee, EAC commissioners explained that with a mere 22-person staff and a budget less than half the size of FY2010, “we simply will not be able to provide the breadth of support election officials need and expect…without additional resources.”
Any federal election reform initiative without significant funding for the EAC is bound to backfire. The EAC would be the key intermediary for dispersing funds, operationalizing minimum standards, and communicating with election offices. For the EAC to live up to this new role, Congress must reform and strengthen the EAC with additional funding, expanded regulatory responsibilities, and increased oversight. In turn, the EAC should also provide voluntary guidelines for voter registration databases, electronic poll books, and other non-voting election peripherals.
While 2020 was the most secure election in American history, over the last 18 months voters have taken an unprecedented interest in the inner workings of election administration. Never before has such a wide swath of the public been so invested in the mechanics of how ballots are distributed and counted. This renewed focus on election reform provides ample opportunity for lawmakers to put down their arms and finally come together to build a stronger, more accessible election system. But time is quickly running out, and Congress is missing their chance.
Instead of playing to its base, Congress must stop wasting time and start taking action. There’s room for both parties to advocate for their worldview on elections while also agreeing in areas that serve voters well across the board. The country doesn’t need another messaging bill. We need to capitalize on this moment to change the narrative around elections and set minimum standards for voting in America.