On Voting, What Did The Founders Say?

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper No. 59, acknowledged in Article I, Section IV of the U.S. Constitution that the authority to determine the times, places and manner of elections resided with the state legislatures, yet Congress also possessed the power to alter state election law. According to Hamilton, this ultimate authority over state election law could be exercised by the federal government “whenever extraordinary circumstances might render that interposition necessary to its safety.” The reason for placing the initial power in the states was not the traditional rational of promoting valid experimentation to encourage developments in both state and federal law. Rather, as noted by constitutional law scholar Joseph Story in 1833 in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, there was a concern that Congress, or a few Congresspersons from dominant states, might use the ultimate power of the federal government to enact unreasonable federal election laws favoring certain persons.

According to Hamilton and Story, the theory underlying the division of power is the necessity that every government possess its own mode of preservation. State and local governments are diverse, diffuse and can result in experimental, regulatable and accountable methods of election. However, Article I, Section IV of the U.S. Constitution expressly grants the power of preservation of the Union to the federal government. Story called this a “superintending power” over state election law.

We must ask if the incident of January 6th in the United States with the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building indicates such an extraordinary circumstance. Is a return to Jim Crow such a circumstance? In Hamilton’s opinion, elections are left to “local administrations … in the ordinary cases, and when no improper views prevail ….” The United States has recently experienced uprisings and protests by persons of all races, colors, creeds, nationalities, religions and sexual orientations. Is there a need for election laws that would guarantee equality of representation with uniform voter qualifications throughout the Union?

The balance of power between the states and federal government need not be wholly undone by a constitutional amendment. Rather, we should place first the principle of the preservation of fair, equitable, just and honest government. Discretionary power over elections may be abused wherever it resides. And, historically, it has been abused at both the state and federal levels. Once, rivalry and ambition among the states justified the power of state election law. Now, national and international commerce support national standards of elections and the inclusion of all eligible voters in the election process.

Lori Gayle Nuckolls

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