A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Al Cross: Both parties go too far with election bills; bipartisan compromise is needed

In a democratic republic, it’s essential that voters have confidence in the system by which they, democratically with one vote each, choose their representatives. Without that trust, voter turnout will keep falling, the system won’t be truly representative, and elections can be more easily manipulated.

Some elected representatives in one political party, spurred by their unofficial leader’s baseless lie that he was ousted unfairly, are passing state laws that they say are designed to restore voters’ confidence in elections – when the real impact will be to make voting more difficult for people who are less likely to support that party’s candidates.

It’s not happening in Kentucky, where the legislature made voting easier this year, though not as easy as it was made due to the pandemic. We still make voting harder than most states, and we have a stake in the national fight.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

Some other states are passing, or trying to pass, laws that give their legislatures the power to overrule state election officials – who, overall, have one of our country’s better records of honorable, impartial public service.

If such laws had existed in enough states last year, that unofficial party leader might still be president, through what would have been a sort of official coup. He wants to run again in 2024, so such laws could pose a clear and present danger to representative democracy.

But enough, for now, about Republicans and Donald Trump.

House Democrats have, as usual, over-reacted by passing a bill that is a long wish list and has no chance of passing the Senate. The impasse is attributed to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, but several other Democratic senators know the bill goes too far and would want it changed before voting for it.

Manchin is right when he says that election laws should be passed in bipartisan fashion, to maintain trust in the system. This one could be bipartisan, if Manchin would agree to support lowering the threshold for ending Senate filibusters from 60 votes to 55, and if Democrats were willing to ditch provisions that are anathema to Republicans, such as a $6-to-$1 match of small contributions to federal campaigns.

(The match would come from surcharges on criminal and civil penalties, but Republicans would still call it “taxpayers’ money,” as they did when they killed public funding of races for Kentucky governor.)

The Democrats’ huge bill needs a lot of work. It tries to do too much in some cases, and not enough in others.

It would require states to automatically register as voters everyone who is eligible, up to the day of voting, and require states to offer no-excuse absentee balloting and 15 days of early voting. Such measures are a threat to federalism, a founding American principle. Advocates argue that the bill would apply only to federal elections, but unlike Kentucky and a few other states, most states’ elections coincide with federal elections, and you can’t run an election with two voting systems.

The advocates also argue that the bill’s absentee-ballot provisions would not open the door to widespread voter fraud. They need to check out Kentucky, where we have a long line of criminal convictions involving votes that were bought and guaranteed through misuse of absentee ballots. States like ours need the ability to pass their own laws to thwart such schemes, which are prevalent among the poor and undereducated.

Such election fraud is easy when there are a relatively small number of votes, such as local elections in most Kentucky counties. But the more votes there are, the harder fraud gets, and the easier it is to uncover, as Republicans in North Carolina found when one of their party’s operatives got caught in a scheme to “harvest” absentee ballots in a recent congressional election.

In the biggest election of all, for president, there was no widespread voter fraud in 2020, as dozens of judges and Trump’s own Justice Department have said. But his lies about the election are believed by so many Republicans that their legislators have a talking point for passing laws that will make it harder for the poor to vote.

Federalism lets states run their own elections, but some states are going so far that they threaten another fundamental principle: fairness of elections. Georgia’s law “facilitates third-party challenges to the legitimacy of votes and arrogates to the state legislature … the power to appoint most members of the State Board of Elections, who in turn have the power to replace county boards of elections,” The New York Times noted in an editorial advising congressional Democrats to rewrite their elections bill.

Courts, not partisan legislatures, need the final say in election disputes. Some national standards are needed. The bill’s advocates say democracy is in danger of being broken; even if it’s not, it is clearly being bent.

Related Posts

One Comment

  1. Richard says:

    The democrats are seeking to control state election laws at the federal level. 30 states at last count have republican legislatures. Democrats want to stack the deck in their favor as much as possible, by forcing election law changes on the states they do not control. Please leave Kentucky alone. We don’t need the help of Nancy and Chuck to write our legislation.

Leave a Comment