The Sweep of the Electoral Power
36 Constitutional Commentary 1 (2021)
86 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2020 Last revised: 11 Oct 2021
Date Written: October 20, 2020
Congress is on the cusp of transforming American elections. The House recently passed a bill that would thwart voter suppression, end gerrymandering, and curb the undue influence of the rich. Something like this bill could soon become law. In this Article, I provide a multilayered foundation for such sweeping electoral legislation. From a theoretical perspective, first, I argue that Congress poses less of a threat to democratic values than do the states or the courts. It’s more difficult for a self-interested faction to seize control of federal lawmaking than to capture a state government or a judicial body. Second, surveying the history of congressional electoral regulation, I contend that it’s remarkably benign. Most federal interventions have advanced democratic values—in marked contrast to many of the states’ and the courts’ efforts.
Third, I show that current law grants Congress the expansive electoral authority that, normatively, it ought to possess. In particular, the Elections Clause, the Guarantee Clause, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Enforcement Clause combine to empower Congress over most electoral levels and topics. And fourth, returning to the House’s recently passed bill, I maintain that its most controversial elements are constitutional under the applicable doctrine. In fact, Congress could venture considerably further than, to date, it has tried to go. Together, these points should hearten legislators when they next turn to the project of electoral reform. Not only is aggressive federal action permissible in the American political system—it may be the only way to save it.
Keywords: election law, constitutional law
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