Stateline Story

GAO Says Congress Has Primacy in Election Reform

  • March 16, 2001
  • By Daniel Seligson
Government investigators researching state and federal election rights gave members of Congress a legal go-ahead to pursue a number of sweeping bills to change the way the nation votes.

The General Accounting Office issued a report Tuesday (3/13) in which it found Congress "has constitutional authority over both congressional and presidential elections."

Noting the traditionally delicate balance struck between state and federal rights in elections, the GAO nonetheless stated Congress would be within its power to require states to update voting systems, disallow some local practices or even require uniform federal standards for congressional elections.

The findings could bolster the efforts of a number of lawmakers who have filed more than 30 election reform bills since the 107th Congress began.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who introduced a $2.5 billion election reform measure, said under his bill localities could have the choice of whether to apply for federal funds to upgrade voting machines. But to get the money, they would have to adhere to federal standards.

"We're not just going to throw money at the problem," Schumer said. "We'll find the best system and then offer matching funds."

A number of state leaders have spoken against such assistance, fearing such a federal role would strip them of some of their historical control over elections. One day after the agency issued its report, California State Senator Jim Costa, president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, urged members of Congress to "exercise caution" when considering national election reform bills."We urge you to carefully examine and refrain from enacting proposals that would limit the ability of state legislatures to exercise discretion over their election processes a basic and traditional function of state government," Costa wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. "If the federal government chooses to conduct its own review of elections, state legislators ought to be afforded substantial and meaningful opportunity to contribute to the proceedings."

According to the GAO investigators, however, Congress does not need to show such restraint if the election reform bills now under consideration deal with congressional or presidential elections.

Citing Article I, Sec. 4, Clause 1 of the Constitution, or the "Election Clause," the GAO report noted while states have the right to regulate "the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives," Congress can alter or scrap any state laws in congressional elections.

Or, as many in Congress have done this year, offer their own alternatives or standards to state election laws and procedures.

State lawmakers are considering more than 1,200 bills this year, including bills to mandate statewide voter registration files, reinstate voting rights for felons, and, in the wake of Florida's election fiasco, outlaw punch cards and the infamous chads.

Doug Lewis, executive director of the Houston-based Election Center, an association of election and voter registration officials, said judges around the country would probably not view the body of law in the same manner as the GAO.

"I think at this point there's a real delicate balance keeping most of this [authority] at the state level," Lewis said. "While the GAO report says they can do almost everything they want to, the real truth is that's not necessarily