How the movement to change voting procedures was derailed by the 2020 election results

The coronavirus pandemic exposed many problems with the voting process in the United States. Many of these problems stem from the fact that U.S. national elections are administered with a good deal of local control and variation. However, this situation can be changed, if the national government wishes to exert more control. Article I, Section IV of the Constitution begins by declaring that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” Importantly, this clause then goes on to give the federal government power to override the states with regard to election law by stating that “the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”

Had the 2020 election put the Democrats in control of the presidency, Senate, and House, they would have likely used the powers granted by Article I, Section IV to reshape how U.S. federal elections are conducted. The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform provided a long list of voting reforms that they proposed to enact into law. However, Republicans adamantly oppose these changes. The strong likelihood (at the time of writing) that the Republicans will control the Senate means that the American electoral process will probably not be transformed anytime soon.

The key changes the Democrats proposed to the voting process in their 2020 platform were as follows:

•Election Day would become an official national holiday.

•All states would have to implement automatic voter registration procedures, in which states automatically add people they know are eligible to the electoral roll.

•All states would have to provide for Election Day registration for eligible voters who are not already on the electoral roll.

•All states would have to provide early voting opportunities so that people can easily vote in person before Election Day, if they so choose.

•All states would have to provide a vote by mail option.

•All states would be required to restore voting rights for criminals at the end of their sentence, even if they still owe fees or fines.

All of these provisions have routinely been criticized by Republicans as infringing upon the tradition of state and local control of elections. Democrats typically respond that allowing states and localities to have so much discretion with regard to election procedures has caused quite a mess – one that they hoped to clean up with national legislation in 2021.

Campaign finance regulations are another key aspect of the electoral process that the 2020 Democratic Party platform promised to change. Among the key changes to campaign finance proposed by the Democrats were:

•Establishment of public funding for congressional campaigns through a matching system for small-dollar donations.

•Legislation to ensure that SuperPACs are wholly independent of campaigns and parties.

•Legislation to require full disclosure of contributors to any group that advocates for or against candidates.

•A constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo decisions by clearly stating that Congress may set limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.

Republicans object to all of these proposals, arguing that they impose unnecessary and unwarranted restrictions on free speech. One likely result of this overwhelming Republican opposition is that the chances of ever getting a constitutional amendment passed are virtually nil given the high threshold of support necessary for amending the U.S. Constitution.

On the other side, Democrats are very committed to all the voting and campaign finance reforms that are feasible through federal legislation. Soon after taking control of the House of Representatives in January of 2019, they signaled that electoral reform was their #1 priority by making sure that their comprehensive proposal was the first bill introduced in the new Congress. Known as H.R. 1, “For the People Act,” this 709 page bill passed the House in 2019, with every Democratic member voting for it. Many of its provisions would accomplish the goals set out in the 2020 Democratic Party platform.

The House Democratic majority would certainly like to refocus on this issue early in 2021. Yet, they will recall that the 2019 bill died in the Republican-controlled Senate and realize that such an outcome is likely to be repeated as long as the Republicans continue to control the Senate. Had the Democrats gained control of the Senate in 2021, they could have voted to exempt voting rights bills from being filibustered and then passed the bill on a party-line vote. Finally, President Biden would certainly have signed such a voting reform bill.

In short, voting reform was probably decided at the polls in the 2020 election. By narrowly giving the Republicans a majority in the Senate, voters probably sandbagged any chance of major electoral reform in 2021 and 2022.