Beyond the Margin of Litigation: Reforming U.S. Election Administration to Avoid Electoral Meltdown

64 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2005 Last revised: 25 Jul 2013


In the 2004 presidential election, the United States came much closer to electoral meltdown, violence in the streets, and constitutional crisis than most people realize. Less than a 2% swing among Ohio voters toward Democratic candidate for President John Kerry and away from incumbent Republican President George W. Bush would have placed the Ohio - and national - election for president well within the margin of litigation, and it would have gotten ugly very quickly. Allegations of voter fraud and voter suppression were rampant on both sides, and even though Kerry conceded the election on the day after Election Day, public confidence in the U.S. system of American administration is now quite low. Previously unpublished data demonstrate that there is a growing partisan divide over views of the fairness of the election process.

The bad news from the story of Election 2004 is that things likely won't get better in 2008. As Part I details, the extreme partisanship and close division of the American electorate, coupled with the Electoral College system, make the possibility of another razor-close presidential election in one or more battleground states fairly likely. Add to that mix election administration incompetence and a widely decentralized system of election administration with a patchwork of inconsistent rules. What's worse, since Bush v. Gore, losing candidates have become more willing to resort to election law as part of a political strategy: the number of election-law related cases in the lower courts has risen dramatically compared to the period before the case. It all adds up to a recipe for electoral meltdown.

In Part II of this Article, I argue for three reforms that could significantly lower the risk of electoral meltdown. First, I advocate registration reform, in particular universal voter registration conducted by the government coupled with a voter identification program. There has been a wide partisan divide in the election administration debate between Democrats who have expressed concern about voter suppression and Republicans who have expressed concern about voter fraud. The registration reform I advocate can alleviate both of those concerns, minimize the potential for and political rhetoric regarding voter fraud, and eliminate a great majority of potential litigation surrounding presidential election administration

Second, I advocate a transition to nonpartisan election administration. The nonpartisan solution aims to create both the actuality and appearance of neutrality in election administration, thereby bolstering the public's faith in the process. Australia and Canada serve as good models for reform in this regard, though not necessarily their nationalization of election administration. I consider how to assure that U.S. election administrators are truly nonpartisan, and contrast arguments for nonpartisan election administration with calls for nonpartisan redistricting commissions and campaign finance enforcement.

Third, I discuss the role of the courts in minimizing electoral meltdown. The key here is to encourage courts to be more willing to entertain pre-election litigation and much more chary of entertaining post-election litigation. To the extent election administration problems can be recognized in advance, pre-election judicial review prevents future harm from occurring, rather than putting courts in the position of trying to undo the bad effects of a past harm. The costs of post-election review are large: the pressure put on courts to decide arcane election law questions when the outcome of an election - especially a presidential election - is huge, and the appearance of partisan decisionmaking is inevitable.

Keywords: election administration, voter registration, equal protection, election law

Suggested Citation

Hasen, Richard L., Beyond the Margin of Litigation: Reforming U.S. Election Administration to Avoid Electoral Meltdown. Washington & Lee Law Review, Vol. 62, p. 937, 2005, Loyola-LA Legal Studies Paper No. 2005-7, Available at SSRN:

Richard L. Hasen (Contact Author)

UCLA School of Law ( email )

3102063103 (Phone)
90095-1476 (Fax)

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