Bright Ideas: Prof. Rick Hasen on the Recent and Future Voting War Engagements

There has been a tremendous amount of activity around election law since 2000. Decisions by the Supreme Court, district courts, and legislatures are affecting the future of how our country votes. The fights are in some ways old as voting is always political, but are new as the battlegrounds have changed. I am excited to welcome Professor Richard L. Hasen on Bright Ideas to get into some history, perspective on recent cases, and thoughts on where we need more research. As Professor Hasen says “The more we can address these points with facts and logic rather than hyperbole and assumption, the better.” Read on to find out the details.

Professor Hasen is Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. I have been fortunate to know his work in person from when he spoke at Thomas Jefferson School of Law about his book The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. Professor Hasen is a nationally recognized expert in election law and campaign finance regulation, and is co-author of a leading casebook on election law. He is the author of more than 80 articles on election law issues, published in numerous journals including the Harvard Law Review, Stanford Law Review and Supreme Court Review. He was elected to the American Law Institute in 2009, and he was named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by The National Law Journal in 2013. We are are fortunate to have Professor Hasen with us today. With that let’s get to the questions.

Q: Rick, voting rights have taken on new importance. States are trying to pass laws that require proof of citizenship. The Supreme Court has rejected some attempts to require proof of citizenship in federal elections. But a federal judge in Kansas has just ruled that the federal government must aid states that wish to require proof of citizenship. Before we get into the details about whether that ruling makes sense, can you help folks understand what is going on? Why is there a renewed interest in voter registration?

A: The interest in voter registration is part of a broader interest in, and fights over, rules for how we run our elections, from registration, to voter i.d., to how to handle the ballots of people who vote in the wrong voting precinct. As I explain in my 2012 book, The Voting Wars, since 2000 we have witnessed a great struggle between the parties, and between the federal and state governments, over who controls the voting rules. The disputed 2000 election ending with Bush v. Gore showed everyone that in very close elections, the rules of the game can make a difference. Parties have been jockeying for position, with Republicans generally favoring laws making it harder to register and vote and Democrats making it easier. Both parties’ positions conveniently line up with their own electoral chances: an expanded electorate (full of poor, minority, and non-regular voters who are less likely to be registered) is believed to skew toward Democrats.

Q: Before we get into the recent cases, your mention of close elections makes me wonder, has something changed in the past twenty years? If I remember correctly, there have been a few other major elections at the state level where the vote came down to a handful of votes. It just seems odd that at a large scale, we are seeing major power shifts determined by a few hundred votes. I suppose the same could be said about Kennedy’s election. But still, does the closeness reflect something about political divisions, corruption, or something else?

A: I think something has changed. The amount of legislation on the state level has increased–at least if we think of controversial legislation. Further, the amount of election litigation has more than doubled in the period after the disputed 2000 election compared to the period before. Election law has become part of a political strategy. It is not just about litigating after a close election; it is about litigating before an election to get advantage under the rules.

Q: So it seems the fight for power has two shifts then. First, there are close elections. Second, there is the renewed and modern fights to control who votes. With that, what happened in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.? What was the question and how did the Court come out on the issues before it?

A: Since Congress passed the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, or “motor voter law,” because it mandates that motor vehicle departments offer voter registration), states have been required to accept a “federal form” for registering voters in federal elections. The Federal Election Commission used to be in charge of this form, but in 2002, when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) creating the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the EAC has been in charge of the form.

Arizona asked the EAC to modify the form to require it to include a requirement that new residents in Arizona provide documentary proof of citizenship before registering to vote. The EAC deadlocked on the request. Arizona did not challenge the EAC determination in court. Instead, Arizona decided not to accept registrations on the federal form. Plaintiffs representing groups of voters sued to require Arizona to accept registrations submitted on the federal form. In the Arizona v. Inter Tribal case, the Supreme Court said that Congress had the power under the Elections Clause to set the “manner” of voting in federal elections, and on this basis Arizona could not refuse to accept the federal form.

In a twist, however, the Court (in an opinion by Justice Scalia) suggested that Arizona should sue the EAC for not requiring the citizenship information on the form. The Court noted that although the Elections Clause gives Congress the power to set the maner of federal elections, it gives states the power to set voter qualifications, even in federal elections. The Court further suggested that the EAC might not be able to promulgate a federal form which frustrates a state’s attempt to verify voter qualifications.

Arizona, joined by Kansas, filed just such a suit, and a federal district court just decided that suit. I offer my analysis here, and here is an important NY Times analysis of what may come next.

Q: Fantastic explanation. Thank you. I urge folks to look at Rick’s post and the Times piece. Although you are quite honest that you “do not know how this case will fare as it works its way up on appeal,” I’d like to close with a couple questions. First, the Times piece notes that Alabama is moving forward with its new voter requirements. It seems that the federal form would be quite complicated if it had to reflect 50 different voter qualifications. Furthermore if each, or even several, are challenged, whether a form is ever stable enough to use could be a problem. That may be a goal for some, but it makes me wonder at the odd outcomes. It has been some time since I took administrative law, but could the practical complications be a way to challenge the Scalia logic? It just seems strange that states can dictate to the federal government. Second, as broader question and to wrap up, do you have any suggestions about discrete topics professors or students should pursue on this topic (i.e., are there open issues on either side that merit study)?

A: On the specifics of the form, the EAC has made modifications before, and it is not clear that states wanting citizenship verification are going to demand different things–or that the different things can’t be easily pointed to on the form. I think the broader issue is whether states could stymie other federal laws, such as laws protecting military and overseas voters which require states to accept a “fail safe” federal ballot for voting. There’s lots of potential mischief in a muscular reading of states’ rights to enforce voter qualifications over Congressional election law power. Derek Muller flags some of these confusing points.

On the open questions there are so many, beginning with how to understand the borderline between state and federal power in this area. There is also a great need for more (and better) empirical work on the effect of these laws on turnout, fraud prevention, and voter confidence. The more we can address these points with facts and logic rather than hyperbole and assumption, the better.

Thanks for taking the time to listen!

Thank you, Rick for sharing your ideas and giving us a sense of things to come.

NOTE: This interview was written using Google Docs. I posed questions to which Rick replied, and we edited content for flow and clarity.

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