H.R. 1, the bill that would seize control of federal elections from the states, comes with an unusual twist. It supposedly promotes “access.” But it says anyone challenging its constitutionality is barred from every court in the nation but a single federal trial court in Washington, D.C.!
Under H.R. 1, some citizens get more access than others.
Mark Twain is said to have quipped that history doesn’t repeat itself, but often rhymes. And here's one of those rhymes: Limiting challengers to one court in the nation sounds a lot like Founding-Era warnings that if Congress could regulate its own elections it might limit voters to one polling place per state. More on that shortly.
"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 ...."H.R. 1 quotes some out-of-context Supreme Court language to the effect that the italicized language gives Congress broad authority to overrule state election law.
But the text of the Elections Clause tells a very different story, as does its history.
Now let’s look at the history:
When the Constitution was publicly debated, the proviso giving Congress power to revise state election laws was highly controversial. Even many of the Constitution’s supporters wanted it taken out. Dr. James McClurg of Virginia, who had served at the Constitutional Convention, was one of these. Another was Noah Webster, later famous for his American dictionary. Webster wrote an influential pamphlet strongly supporting the Constitution—but demanding that the proviso be removed.
Why the concern? They understood the danger of allowing incumbent politicians to dictate the laws governing their own re-election. Experience shows that if incumbents write the rules, they write the rules to suit themselves. A glaring example is how the Democrat sponsors of H.R. 1 seek to alter state voter registration systems to their own advantage.
Skeptical Founding-Era writers explained in detail how the proviso could be abused. They pointed out, for instance, that if Congress could fix a “Place” for election, it might severely limit the number of polling places and locate them to benefit incumbents. Thus, a congressman from Philadelphia might induce his colleagues to locate only one polling place in Pennsylvania—in the congressman’s own neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Sound familiar? It’s a lot like Democrat partisans providing that the one court where H.R. 1 can be challenged is in heavily Democrat Washington, D.C.
During the constitutional debates, there was so much public resistance to the proviso that advocates became very concerned. What if these few words led the public to reject the entire Constitution?
"[T]he proponents’ decisive argument ... was one that had first been raised at the federal convention: that the Times, Places and Manner Clause was needed to enable Congress to preserve its own existence. In absence of a congressional power to regulate congressional elections, a group of states could destroy the House of Representatives by refusing to provide for those elections or by creating regulations designed to sabotage them. As a precedent, the Federalists alleged that Rhode Island had damaged the operations of the Confederation Congress by refusing to send delegates to that body. The Federalists made this argument over and over, using it to sway votes in crucial states."Moreover:
"In Maryland, convention delegate James McHenry added that ... an insurrection or rebellion might prevent a state legislature from administering an election. As James Iredell told the North Carolina ratifying convention, '[a]n occasion may arise when the exercise of this ultimate power in Congress may be necessary ... if a state should be involved in war, and its legislature could not assemble, (as was the case of South Carolina, and occasionally of some other states, during the late war).'”Maryland’s famous jurist, Alexander Contee Hanson, added that Congress would exercise its “times, places, and manner” authority only in cases of invasion, legislative neglect, or obstinate refusal to pass election laws, or if a state crafted its election laws with a “sinister purpose” or to injure the general government. “It was never meant,” he wrote, “that congress should at any time interfere, unless on the failure of a state legislature, or to alter such regulations as may be obviously improper.”
Based on these assurances, the public accepted the proviso and ratified the Constitution.
Here’s an illustration of how the courts should apply Congress’s Election Clause authority. Suppose the question arises of whether “the manner of holding Elections” extends only to mechanics such as the form of the ballot, or also includes regulating campaigns. Narrow construction would give force to the Founding-Era evidence that “manner of holding” does not include campaigns.
Bottom line: The drafters of H.R. 1 were wrong to proclaim unlimited power to regulate federal elections and campaigns. On the contrary, the Elections Clause grants Congress only limited authority. A runaway Congress should never be permitted to seize more power than the Constitution gives it.