An epic battle is being waged in Congress over how we vote and who decides how we vote. The U.S. House has passed HR 1, also known ironically as the "For the People Act." The first Senate hearing on the measure was held March 24.
Much is at stake in this fight, including the Senate's filibuster rule that legislation requires the support of 60 senators instead of a simple majority to advance.
HR 1/SR 1 proposes that instead of the separate states determining how their citizens vote — something state legislatures have been doing since the U.S. Constitution went into effect — Congress will do it for us. The bill proposes one-size-fits-all rules on how Americans vote and draw political district lines (redistricting).
Americans are deeply concerned about voter integrity — but there is massive disagreement over what "integrity" means. Confidence in election results has been shaken by changes in how we vote and by allegations of voter suppression.
Sometimes, out of frustration, we crave federal solutions rather than working through the state legislatures. But are things so terrible that we need a federal takeover? Even if the situation was as bad as critics say, what is it about the current congressional majority that it thinks it knows better than the 50 state legislatures elected by the people?
The states are better at experimenting with new and different arrangements and approaches, and then consulting with one another to see how new ideas play out. That is why the Constitution leaves the administration of elections to the states, while reserving to Congress the right to make necessary changes.
Call it the laboratory of democracy, call it federalism — it has been working well since 1789. Congress has intervened from time to time, asking the states to ratify constitutional amendments after the Civil War that protected the voting rights of all men, no matter their race or skin color, and extending that to all women in 1920.
After passing legislation in 1970 that lowered the voting age to 18, Congress asked states to amend the Constitution confirming that change.
Congress also passed civil rights legislation to better ensure that all eligible citizens are able to vote, no matter their race or sex.
But otherwise Congress has been mostly hands-off on the detailed administration of elections — until now.
Here are some highlights of the new bill:
It effectively prohibits voter ID requirements (a sworn statement is good enough to vote); requires 15 days of early voting and the use of drop boxes; forces states to offer vote-by-mail; allows 16-year-olds to preregister; automatically registers individuals in government databases without confirming citizenship; allows felons to vote who have completed "any part" of their sentence; criminalizes attempts to determine a voter's eligibility, and forces states to accept ballots arriving 10 days after Election Day.
All 50 states are free to adopt the provisions of HR 1/SR 1 right now, if they choose. For better or for worse, Minnesota already features some of them. But this Congress is saying to all Americans: "We know better than you and your chosen state representatives." And then tries to fool voters by calling the bill the "For the People Act."
At a time when many of "the people" want to restrict early and absentee balloting, ban drop boxes and require voter ID, HR 1/SR 1 is tone-deaf. If Congress forces its progressive will on the people, confidence in elections will plummet. In reality HR 1/SR 1 is highly regressive, harking back to a time when a distant king and parliament governed from afar. But even in those days, the colonies ran their own elections.
Most Americans are not hard leftists or hard right-wingers; we are a marvelous mix of liberals and conservatives who want to live in peace with our neighbors. Most of us are sick of politics dominating our lives with endless campaigns. If Congress wants to do something, how about a law restricting the length of federal election campaigns?
And while D.C. is closer than London, it might as well be an ocean away if we the people want to change a federal law.
Minnesotans, however, are in a unique position to influence this national debate. Sen. Amy Klobuchar chairs the Senate Rules Committee and some senators are tempted to blow up the rule requiring 60 votes to pass legislation in order to pass HR 1/SR 1. President Joe Biden says he will sign it.
This threatened federal coup against the states would be a serious breach of the promise made long ago that the people, through the states, would be entrusted with the most fundamental rights of a free people.
Let's ask Sen. Klobuchar to keep election laws close to home rather than giving that power to Congress.
Kim Crockett, of Excelsior, is an attorney and voting rights advocate.