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The Role of the Federal Government on Voting Rights

Who exactly oversees voting and more specifically, what is the role of the federal government on voting rights?

Although the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, voting rights have continued to evolve even after the landmark Act. Some might argue that there has been no time like the present in regards to changes in the way Americans vote. But who exactly oversees voting and more specifically, what is the role of the federal government on voting rights? 

Who Oversees Election Proceedings? 

For the most part, the federal government does not control how elections play out across the nation. Rather, elections are controlled at the local level and are primarily overseen by individual states. Article 1 of the Constitution gives states the responsibility to oversee federal elections. This means states control different aspects of U.S. elections including what makes a voter eligible to participate, primaries, how each state’s electoral college is run, and how elections are administered.

Although individual states control how elections are administered, states must still adhere to federal laws. For example, states can expand the definition of who is eligible to vote in that state, but they must adhere to the basic Constitutional definition that gives Americans the right to vote. The federal government simply oversees that states follow the rules and regulations stipulated by the Voting Rights Act and all other voting laws. 

Election Funding and Voter Awareness

One of the most direct ways the federal government plays a role in voting rights is through avenues of funding and raising awareness for voting. The federal government can set specific standards that states must adhere to in order to promote accessibility to voting. For example, one standard is the national measure that individuals have the option to register to vote when they apply for their driver’s license. 

The federal government also has a say in the finances related to federal elections. The Federal Election Campaign Act is perhaps the major measure that requires candidates to make public where their campaign contributions come from, the exact dollar amounts, and how that money is spent. The Federal Election Campaign Act only stipulates funding transparency for elections on the federal level including elections for president, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. 

The federal government can also assist states with monetary aid so that elections within the state run smoothly. For example, this past year, the nation saw the federal government step in during the coronavirus pandemic to offer $400 million in assistance through the CARES Act. This funding allowed election offices around the nation to properly prepare for the shift in mail-in ballot votes. 

Maintaining Secure Elections

Another role the federal government plays in voting rights is through securing the voting process from outside interference. This is primarily done for the U.S. presidential election. The past two U.S. presidential elections have been the center of controversy in terms of foreign interference from adversary countries. 

At the federal level, the government has the authority and responsibility to ensure that elections are secure. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) explains, “We are committed to working collaboratively with those on the front lines of elections – state and local government, election officials, federal partners and the vendor community – to manage risks to election infrastructure. We will remain transparent as well as agile to combat and secure our physical and cyber infrastructure against new and evolving threats.”

This responsibility for ensuring secure elections also falls on state governments. Because of this, state governments have the ability to decide how votes are collected and what means are used to count ballots. For example, states have the ability to vet and decide between different businesses that offer vote counting technologies. Some of the nation’s most popular and widely used ballot counting companies include Dominion Voting Systems and Election Systems & Software. 

The Role of the Electoral College System

The Electoral College has been a hot button topic for several years because the essence of the Electoral College system goes against the philosophy of “one person, one vote.” While most times, electoral votes aligned with the popular vote, that is not always the case. In 2016, the election swung in favor of Trump who won more electoral college votes even though his rival Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

The federal government establishes that 270 Electoral College votes are required for a presidential win. However, the details of the Electoral College system within each state are left up to the states to decide. As stipulated by the federal government, each state allocates the same number of electoral votes proportional to the state population. 48 states adhere to the “winner-take-all” method in which voters choose electors by voting for their presidential candidate. Nebraska and Maine do not follow this method.  

Voting Laws to Accommodate Disabled Voters

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Have been implemented at the federal level to help ensure that individuals with disabilities can still have their voices heard on Election Day. The details of these acts ensure that disabled voters can still cast their vote in private and that they have access to facilities that do not physically impede them from casting their vote. For example, different polling places must have wheelchair accessible ramps, handrails, and voting equipment that blind and visually impaired voters can use. Additionally, these laws ensure that poll workers are available for disabled voters in case they need assistance. While the details of voting rights and election proceedings are primarily dictated at the state level, the federal government does provide an outline of how states operate elections.

Final Thoughts on Federal Government Voting Rights

Overall, the federal government does have overarching authority in governing voter rights. The federal government provides the blueprints in federal voter laws but it is up to the states to decide how to implement those laws. By giving states this responsibility, voter access and election proceedings can be more successful to meet the unique needs of different states. 


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