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America Needs To Listen to Canada About an "Elections" Agency
The easiest and most efficient way to clean up our elections and make them open and transparent is for Congress to create an “Elections USA” agency as soon as possible
The United States needs a national elections system run by professionals with complete transparency and not vulnerable to politics: Canada did this 102 years ago and we should take a lesson from their successes to create an Americanized version.
With almost 40 percent of all the mail-in ballot requests coming out of heavily-Democratic Houston being rejected because of the GOP’s latest anti-voter law — and over a dozen other Republican-controlled states following suit with the newest thing in election suppression — by the end of this year’s election it should be obvious to all Americans that we need to change our elections systems.
This won’t work now:
We won’t be able to get rid of the Electoral College that has recently put two election losers — George W. Bush (lost by 500,000 votes) and Donald Trump (lost by 3,000,000 votes) — in the White House: that’s in the Constitution, so the only practical way for all actual winners to become president is if enough states pledge to throw their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote.
That’ll require states representing 270 or more electoral votes to participate in the national popular vote movement, but so far member states are only up to 195 as GOP-controlled states refuse to participate. We need to keep pushing for it with the folks at nationalpopularvote.com, but for the moment it’s not going to solve the Electoral College problem and definitely won’t help with this wave of voter suppression sweeping the country.
But this could:
What we can do, however, without a constitutional amendment or the participation of the states, is for Congress to create a single, nonpartisan, professional national federal agency that sets standards for and runs elections in all 50 states.
Here in Oregon our election is 100 percent by mail and voter registration is automatic when you apply for a drivers’ license, which has put us among the top states in the union for voter participation (75.5% in 2020).
Texas, on the other hand, makes it difficult to register to vote and, even when you succeed in registering, the voting process can be arduous, particularly if you live in a precinct that’s heavily non-white or that regularly votes Democratic, driving down voter participation (60.4% in 2020).
Voter registration also reflects these dynamics, with 67.6% of citizens registered to vote in Oregon compared with only 53.8% in Texas. (The best in the nation is Alaska at 82.8%; the worst is Wyoming at 46.1%.)
But this is the best way:
We need national standardization. Every American citizen should be able to easily register and vote, and the process, while being secure, should also be as easy as mailing an envelope or showing up to mark a ballot in person.
In a federal republic like the US, your ability to vote shouldn’t be a function of where you live; that’s a clear violation of Americans’ right to vote that flies in the face of the guarantee of a “republican form of government” found in the Constitution.
If there’s enough of a turnout-driven backlash to the voter suppression sweeping across the country and Democrats can hold the House and increase their majority in the Senate, 2023 might see the real possibility of significant election reforms.
A starting point would be to establish a single national election administration that’s functionally an appendage of the government but is immune from political manipulation. That agency, rather than the states and counties, would administer elections and tabulate and report the votes.
The US Constitution gives responsibility for running elections to the states unless Congress decides to take over the process:
“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations….”
As the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) notes in an article titled Elections Canada Says its System Protects Canadian Voters from U.S.-style Drama:
“Elections Canada was created a century ago as an independent, non-partisan body to administer federal elections in Canada’s parliamentary system. The chief electoral officer is appointed by a vote of MPs for a 10-year non-renewable term. Returning officers — who are hired by Elections Canada and are required to be nonpartisan — oversee the vote in each of Canada's 338 electoral ridings [precincts].”
The result, said a spokesperson for Elections Canada, is “We are removed from that politicization of the voting system that we see in the U.S.”
Elections are a mess in the United States as a legacy of slavery. As much as the Framers of the Constitution gave lip service to democracy (the vote) in our republic, they also knew that putting it explicitly into that document would be explosive in the slave states.
While free Black people (and women) could vote in parts of several northern states for the first few decades after the founding of our republic in 1789, it only took a single generation for that to vanish, leaving only white men as legal voters in the US by the 1820s.
After the Civil War, during the Reconstruction era between 1866 and 1877, African Americans could vote in every state and even seized considerable political power in several southern states, but the “compromise” that resolved the election of 1876 put an end to that, with the Supreme Court doubling down in Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 ruling:
“[S]ocial equality no more exists between two races when traveling in a passenger coach or a public highway than when members of the same races sit by each other in a street car or in the jury box, or stand or sit with each other in a political assembly, or when they use in common the streets of a city or town, or when they are in the same room for the purpose of having their names placed on the registry of voters, or when they approach the ballot box in order to exercise the high privilege of voting.”
That presidential election of 1876 between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes was the turning point for modern elections, setting up Donald Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election.
How Donald Trump’s lawyers and co-conspirators tried to imitate the election of 1876:
Eight months before our last election, in early March of 2020 — apparently around the time Trump and his buddies started planning to submit multiple slates of electors so they could throw the election into the House of Representatives — I wrote an article for Alternet that included the history that could have been a template for their crime:
In the election of 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote nationwide but, with 184 electoral votes, was one vote short of the necessary 185 electoral votes to become president.
Republican Rutherford B. Hayes not only lost the popular vote but had only 163 electoral votes.
Ohio’s Republican Congressman James Monroe (not related to the president of generations earlier of the same name) wrote the definitive summary of that election and how it played out in Congress, a narrative he published in the Atlantic in October 1893.
Pointing out that “the votes of Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina, with an aggregate of 22 electors” would turn the election to either Hayes or Tilden, Monroe (who was there) wrote, “From the States just named there were two sets of returns, one favorable to General Hayes, the other to Mr. Tilden.”
The dispute happened because three of those four states were then occupied by the Union Army (this was just 11 years after the Civil War ended, and Reconstruction was in full swing). At the same time, the Klan was riding high in all four states and outright controlled Oregon.
Formerly enslaved African Americans were trying to turn out large numbers of voters for the Republican candidate, but there was also widespread Klan activity suppressing that Black vote. On the other side, Confederate-sympathetic Democrats in Congress charged that Union soldiers had intimidated Southern Democratic voters, suppressing their vote.
Monroe wrote that the Democrats charged, “that these returns [for Republican Hayes in those four states] were a product of fraud and dishonesty; that, in preparing them, the vote of whole precincts, parishes, and counties had been thrown out in order to secure Hayes electors… [and] they did not represent the people of those States, but were themselves the product of fraud and corruption, and were kept in place only by what was called the ‘moral influence’ of Federal bayonets.”
The nation nearly exploded, wrote Monroe: “The feeling of mutual hostility had been greatly intensified by party leaders, orators, and presses. In some of our cities it took all the terrors of the police to keep Democrats and Republicans from breaking the peace.”
The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, had a simple solution to the problem of neither candidate winning a majority of electoral votes. “[I]f no person have such majority,” the 12th Amendment says, “then… the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote…”
Because all the Southern states had now been re-admitted to the Union, a majority of the House of Representatives that year were controlled by Democrats, as were a majority of the states. With each state’s delegation having only one vote, the Democratic-controlled House representing a Democratic majority of states would end up making Democrat Sam Tilden the president, something the Republicans wouldn’t go along with.
Republicans added that because the 12th Amendment also says that “The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the [electoral] votes shall then be counted…” that the president of the Senate should be the one to make the call as to which state’s contested votes were legitimate.
The Constitution provides that the vice president shall be the president of the Senate, but President Ulysses Grant’s veep, Henry Wilson, had died the previous year and Grant hadn’t replaced him; thus, the president of the Senate in 1876 was Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, a Republican.
“[I]t would have been as unsatisfactory to Republicans to have the vote declared by the House,” wrote Monroe, “as it would have been to Democrats to have it declared by the President of the Senate.”
“The situation was serious,” Monroe wrote. “Some thoughtful men felt that perhaps the greatest peril that the Republic had encountered was not that of the Civil War” but that “within a hundred days, people would be cutting each other’s throats.”
Senator Banning of Ohio, “My colleague,” Monroe wrote, “declared in a speech, that, if the Republicans should attempt to carry out their theory of the election, and if a part of the army with eighty rounds of ammunition, and the navy, should be ordered to support them, the people would put them all down.”
In response, Virginia’s Congressman Goode stood up and loudly asked his colleagues if they were willing to essentially restart the Civil War.
“A shout of ‘Yes’ went up from the Republican side of the House,” wrote Monroe.
Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, and both sides worked out a compromise that gave the GOP the White House but only on the condition that the newly minted President Rutherford B. Hayes would remove Union troops from the Southern states, ending Reconstruction.
The republic was saved, but only by selling out Southern Black people for the next hundred years.
It’s a stretch to think that John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani found my article on Alternet two years ago and decided to use it to pull off their planned election theft; the events of the election of 1876 weren’t a secret in early 2020 when I predicted Trump would try to reinvent them.
And now there’s an effort in Congress to change the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to prevent a repeat of Trump’s effort.
But with or without a change to the Electoral Count Act, we need an independent voting agency to save American democracy:
None of the Elector-House mess would have been necessary or even possible — in 1876 or 2020 — if we had a single, respected, professional, independent agency that oversaw elections nationally like Canada and most other advanced democracies do.
It’s been 42 years since Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich was helping run the Reagan campaign of 1980 and told his Dallas activists that he didn’t want everyone to vote.
Voter suppression, since Weyrich put down that marker, has become an article of faith in the Republican Party, turning on the myth they relentlessly promote of widespread voter fraud as its justification.
If democracy is to survive in our republic, we must clean up our elections and make them open, transparent and easy to participate in.
The easiest and most efficient way to do that is for Congress to create an “Elections USA” agency as soon as possible (which may be in January after this coming election).