Romana: I don’t think we should interfere.
The Doctor: Interfere? Of course we should interfere. Always do what you’re best at, that’s what I say.
— Doctor Who, “Nightmare of Eden,” 1979
For years, Republicans have mischaracterized Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a “federal takeover” of health care in the United States.
All those doctors, nurses, orderlies, cooks, insurance clerks and stockholders in for-profit hospitals would be shocked to hear that the federal government has seized their practices and properties. Because, of course, it did no such thing.
What Obamacare did was put some guardrails around how health care was paid for. As a result, health care in the United States stinks a little less, even though it is still the worst in the developed world, and is accessible to many more people in this, the only First World nation where “medical bankruptcy” is even a thing.
Now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is among Republicans accusing Joe Biden and other Democrats of plotting a federal takeover of the American system of elections. A system, Romney says, that is and always has been run by state and local officials with no federal meddling.
Senator, Ulysses S. Grant would like a word.
Proposed voting rights legislation would not take the operation of elections away from the states. It would, like the ACA, set up some minimal standards and guards. The fact is that federal oversight — interference, if you will — has never made elections worse in any state or county. It has only made them better. And it is baked into the system.
In Article I of the Constitution of the United States: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”
Article IV: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”(The capitalization of the word “Republican” in this case does not denote the Republican Party, which did not then exist, but is an example of the habit of the time, perhaps borrowed from German, to capitalize lots of important words.)
The 14th Amendment: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States ... nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. ... The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
The 15th Amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. ... The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
President Grant called the 15th Amendment, “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.”
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, as well as many previous, and bipartisan, voting rights laws over the years have been, in the words of the Constitution, “appropriate legislation” passed to keep the promise of equal access to the polls.
Until now. Without doubt, states North and South are moving to limit the right and ability to vote in ways that, even if they don’t use the words, are intended to make it more difficult for people of color, poor people, working people, students, to vote. Not, necessarily, more difficult than it was 100 years ago. But more difficult than it was two years ago, something Congress has the right and the duty to stop.
Romney tries to minimize the impact of proposed changes by arguing that, even as states such as Georgia roll back such provisions as early voting or ballot drop boxes, those states’ laws are in some cases still more generous than the practices in blue states such as New York. Fine. Pass the new law, and everyone will be on the same page. Like the post-Civil War amendments intended.
Romney’s arguments about election laws do make a couple of good points. One is that the voting provisions that have passed the House and run aground in the Senate don’t face some of the most nefarious aspects of Donald Trump’s plot to steal the 2020 election. The parts involving fake slates of electors and such. More legislation is needed to handle that.
The other is that the nuts and bolts of elections are traditionally run on the ground by states and counties, with guidelines set by Congress and enforced by the Department of Justice and the courts. The proposed laws won’t change that, and they shouldn’t.
Elections run as a fully federal enterprise would be easier to steal, allowing someone to hack into a single data system. Decentralizing the actual voting and vote-counting process was and is a good thing that should continue, if only to make it harder for anyone to cook the books.
Of course, to really protect elections, we must eliminate the Electoral College. With the current system, someone could fake or steal just a few thousand votes in a swing state or two and tilt the whole result. Whereas electing a president by popular nationwide vote — with the votes counted in each of 3,142 counties — would be a much more accurate measure of the national will even as it would be much more difficult to hack.
Romney says Biden was elected to, in effect, not be Donald Trump, and no more. But without federal enforcement of universal access to the polls, the chances that Trump and Trumpism will return could not be greater.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has been contemplating Ron Chernow’s 1,000-page biography of Ulysses S. Grant for about two years now. He is on page 18.