In election 2000, “hanging chads” became the national symbol of a dysfunctional election process and made Florida the butt of many jokes. In response, the state reformed its voting process and last November handled the election as well as any state in the nation.
I cast my ballot in Florida for the first time last year and was impressed by the ease of registration and voting. They quickly printed out my ballot, checked my driver’s license and pointed me to a cubby for filling out the ballot. Then, on election night, Florida announced the results fairly early in the evening and that was that.
This year, several other states looked as disorganized as Florida did 20 years ago. It was partly the result of trying to make everything work in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. That led states like Pennsylvania to deal with an onslaught of mail-in ballots far greater than anything it had seen before. Not surprisingly, 83% of Pennsylvania voters believe it’s important to reform the state’s voting laws before 2022 arrives. Sixty-three percent say it’s very important.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that those numbers don’t include only disgruntled supporters of former President Donald Trump who somehow still believe he was the legitimate winner in election 2020. Just about everyone would prefer their state to conduct elections in a way that looked more like Florida than Pennsylvania last November. That’s why 88% of Pennsylvania voters want their state’s government agencies to clean the voter registration files prior to each election. For the vast majority, it’s common sense to remove the names of all who have moved or died.
It’s also why 75% of Pennsylvania voters favor a requirement that all mail-in ballots must be received by Election Day. That requirement is one reason Florida was able to report their results on election night. Had then-candidate Joe Biden been declared the winner in Pennsylvania on election night, nearly half the nation would have been disappointed. But their disappointment would have been easier to accept if the results were delivered in a timely manner that conveyed confidence in the results. And, of course, that would have saved the nation months of postelection trauma.
These realities would lead some to believe that Congress should pass laws establishing a uniform set of election laws. Perhaps the national laws could be modeled after what Florida did after the election 2000 debacle. There are two problems with that: one legal and one practical.
The legal problem is that the Constitution of the United States specifically gives states the authority to set their own election laws. The practical problem is that we live in a world where the only constant is constant change. Whatever reforms are needed this time around will need to be tweaked again and again over the years.
This requires experimentation and competition, not rules issued from on high by those in official Washington. Florida did well in 2020, but it’s far from the only state with good ideas. Utah has a history of mail-in voting, providing lessons that are certainly worthy of consideration. Just last year, a hard-fought primary battle to determine the state’s next governor was decided by just over a single percentage point. But the process was sound, and the losing candidates graciously accepted the results.
Besides, real reform is far more likely to emerge from the states than the federal government. In 1869, half a century before Congress got around to recommending the women’s suffrage amendment, Wyoming gave women the right to vote. Why? Because there were six men for every woman in Wyoming at the time. Voting rights became part of a marketing campaign to attract more women to the state.
Over the next half century, while Congress routinely rejected any efforts to give women the right to vote, more and more state and local governments followed the lead of Wyoming. Often, the political dynamics had nothing to do with voting rights per se. Liquor companies vigorously opposed allowing women to vote because they expected most women would support the prohibition of alcohol. But, over time, seeing women vote became part of the nation’s electoral landscape.
In fact, before Congress got around to formally granting women the right to vote, a woman had already served in Congress. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, was elected in 1916. She was eligible to server because her state allowed women to vote. By the time Congress finally recommended the 19th Amendment, roughly half of Congress was already being elected with the votes of women.
In a deeply polarized nation, all of us share an interest in ensuring the integrity of the election process. That desire is likely to fuel election reform in state after state between now and election 2022.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”