The media’s latest hot take is that Republicans — in particular the dastardly Sen. Mitch McConnell — are blocking bipartisan legislation to protect the nation’s elections. Reality, as usual, is more complicated. Consider the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act, or the Safe Act, which the Democratic House passed in June.
The core of the Safe Act is a pile of federal money, $600 million in the first year, to help states upgrade their voting systems. The bill would standardize and tighten election rules. All votes for federal office would have to be cast via paper ballots. A portion of this audit trail would then need to be manually checked for every election. Voting machines — presumably devices that assist in marking paper ballots — could not be manufactured outside the U.S. or connected to the internet.
Some of these ideas may have merit, but others have trade-offs. Running elections has been a state responsibility, and there are legitimate questions about further federalizing it. The Safe Act says post-election audits would be fully paid for by Washington — assuming Congress appropriated enough funds. If states think free money for new voting equipment is around the corner, they may quit upgrading themselves.
Paper ballots aren’t perfect, as Florida has shown. Last year in Broward County thousands of voters didn’t fill in the ovals for U.S. Senate, probably due to a poorly designed paper ballot that tucked this race beneath the panel with the voting instructions. If a recount means examining all paper ballots by hand, the Safe Act could slow final results.
Many electronic voting machines also create a physical paper trail. A dozen or so states still have some purely electronic machines, but often they are already in line to be phased out. Compared with hard ballots, digital devices with a paper backup may be easier for disabled voters to use, while adding flexibility. In Indiana, many voters aren’t locked to a specific polling place. They can cast a ballot at any “vote center” in their county, since electronic machines can display each election permutation, with every local candidate for dogcatcher.
The bill trots out liberal hobbyhorses. “All paper ballots used in an election for Federal office,” it says, “shall be printed in the United States on recycled paper manufactured in the United States.” Oklahoma’s top elections official testified in June that given the sensitivity of his ballot scanners, “if we were required to use recycled paper, it would actually run the risk of causing false readings.”
Or how about this Safe Act sleeper provision: “To the greatest extent practicable, an eligible State which receives a grant to replace a voting system under this section shall ensure that the replacement system is capable of administering a system of ranked choice voting.”
A few places, notably Maine and San Francisco, have rolled out this alternative balloting. Rather than mark a single favorite candidate, voters are asked to designate their preferences in numeric order, say, Nos. 1 through 5 (Or 25, as the Democratic presidential primary may have it). Ranked-choice voting has proponents, but in the U.S. it’s still an experiment, and it hardly justifies a federal mandate.
Republicans in the House tried to amend the Safe Act but were voted down. One suggestion was to delete the recycled paper provision. Another would have required “a 25% funding match from states, which would force states receiving funds to have their own skin-in-the-game,” as Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis wrote.
A third Republican proposal was to ban “ballot harvesting,” which is when third-party canvassers go around collecting absentee votes. As election security, this is a no-brainer. Mail-in ballots should not be handled en masse by partisan actors. Many states already ban ballot harvesting. This year North Carolina threw out a House election because a GOP consultant allegedly went door to door amassing ballots, some of them unsealed.
Yet California allows ballot harvesting. “We certainly had that going on here,” the Orange County registrar said last November, “with people dropping off maybe 100 or 200 ballots.” Paid partisan staff can march around California taking possession of votes. This is a recipe for fraud and general mistrust.
When the Safe Act finally passed the House, a single Republican supported it. This allows the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, to pitch the bill as “bipartisan.” He recently asked to pass it by unanimous consent, as if it were immaculately conceived and impervious to debate. “There are only two inferences, neither good,” Mr. Schumer said. “One is, the Republican side doesn’t care about interference in our elections. And the other is, they want it because maybe they think it will benefit them.”
Come on. This isn’t a good-faith try at getting something done. It’s a crude attempt to whack Republicans with a political club.