Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mandate for Democracy

Washington Post reporter and columnist David Broder has been frequently barbecued in the progressive blogosphere in recent years for epitomizing the Beltway Establishment mindset, and particularly its reflexive support for bipartisanship in an era of Republican-driven polarization. But he's also long harbored a quirk that is decidedly and unfortunately unusual among bigfoot journalists: an abiding interest in political and policy developments in the states.

This interest leads Broder periodically to take up state grievances with Washington, and he does so today in a blistering column about pending election reform legislation in Congress, a high priority for House Democrats.

Broder lauds the objectives of the Voter Confidence and Increased Accountability Act (cosponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Rush Holt), particularly its demand for a paper trail for electronic voting systems. But then he touts a variety of state government complaints about the legislation, and gets snarky towards the end in suggesting that House Democrats don't really care if the bill works or not. The headline assigned the column by the Post--"A Paper Trail Towards Chaos?--decisively tilts the piece.

It may well be that the bill's deadlines and independent audit requirements need some work, and there will be plenty of time to refine it in the Senate if it gets that far. But it's clear the states', and thus Broder's, main complaint is that Congress will never get around to fully funding the changes the bill's demands. And that's where I think Broder, and his state friends, are missing a very basic point.

In our constitutional system, states have an independent and fundamental responsibility to operate elections fairly. If they choose to purchase voting machines that raise questions about the fairness and reliability of vote counts, it is their independent and fundamental responsibility to answer those questions. Lest we forget, state failures to competently administer elections, ensure the right to vote, and ensure that every vote is accurately counted, have for decades forced the federal government into this arena. This isn't one of those government functions where the feds have intervened inappropriately.

It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the fiscal concerns of state governments in implementing federal mandates. I've spent a good part of my own career advocating for those concerns, and as it happens, back in the early 1980s, actually drafted a bill, subsequently adopted, creating a point of order against budget amendments that created unfunded mandates on state and local governments. And yes, Congress should fully fund this latest effort at election reform if it wants the reforms to work.

But still, this ain't a matter of Washington telling states how to fill potholes. A mandate to require states to fulfill one of their most important constitutional responsibilities is something states should welcome, or at least not carp about, and David Broder, given his credibility with state officials, should remind them of that.
-- Posted at 5:54 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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