By: Zee Huff
How much do you know about election administration? A layperson could be forgiven for having more personal problems to concern themselves with. There are only so many free hours in the day for the average American worker and, in an ideal world, election administration could be left to election administrators. It’s their job.
However, there are times when citizens must get their hands dirty, either because the state is unable to, or more frequently, unwilling to protect their rights as voters. The classic examples? Voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, intimidation at the polls—efforts to make it harder for certain citizens to exercise their right to vote. Our country has a long and difficult history with ensuring the right to vote for all citizens. So, why would any citizen want to object to efforts to make it easierto cast a vote?
Well, says the Minnesota Voters Alliance, it might make more people come out to vote. People who might not vote the way they’d like. So, they do what any “non-partisan” voting organization “dedicated” to free and fair elections might do: Sue the city of Minneapolis for… funding their elections.
So, a quick primer on election administration:
The Elections Clause of the United States Constitution “directs and empowers states to determine the ‘Times, Places, and Manner’ of congressional elections.” “In practice, the Clause functions as a default provision; it invests the States with responsibility for the mechanics of congressional elections, but only so far as Congress declines to pre-empty state legislative choices.” Though “states typically have primary responsibility for making decisions about the rules of elections,” localities typically bear primary responsibility for the implementation of those rules and for funding elections. The funding comes from various sources, including federal and state funds and private grants and funds.
Minneapolis, for example, “spent $2.3 million to administer the 2016 general election and received no funding from the state or federal government to cover the City’s cost of administering that election.” Taxes collected from Minneapolis citizens can only go so far, especially in an election administered during a global pandemic. Without other avenues of funding, Minneapolis, the city claims, would be unable to safely administer the 2020 general election to the standards set by the governor.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit organization “working to foster a more informed and engaged democracy, and helping to modernize elections,” is providing COVID-19 Response Grants this year to local election offices. Minneapolis, soon after becoming aware of their eligibility, began working to prepare a grant application. The city “applied for $2,297,342 in grand funds from CTCL and was awarded the full amount requested.” That should have been the end of the story.
Instead, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, and four individual Minneapolis voters affiliated with that organization, filed a complaint asserting, among other things, that “[the] City of Minneapolis [acted] ultra vires, without legal authority, to form a public-private partnership for federal election administration with CTCL by accepting and using CTCL’s private federal election grant, because preemption applies under the Elections Clause, Supremacy Clause, HAVA, and NVRA.” If you’ve been reading along, you may realize this sounds patently false. You would be correct! The complaint sought a temporary restraining order, which would have prevented Minneapolis from accepting or using those funds (or any other private federal election grant). The motion was denied on October 16, 2020, for lack of standing for various reasons — some of the referenced laws don’t confer private causes of action, some require an actual injury be alleged (imagine that!), and, in a particularly odd case, another law invoked, Minnesota’s criminal bribery statute, does not even confer a civil cause of action.
So, why are we talking about this? Minneapolis, with the grant money, will be able to administer safe, free, and fair elections. Other than filing a patently frivolous lawsuit and wasting both Minneapolis and the District Court’s time, the Minnesota Voters Alliance did not actually harm voters in any direct way (thankfully). Happy endings abound!
Except the Minnesota Voters Alliance’s counsel, or his firm, “have filed substantively identical challenges to election grants accepted by numerous counties and cities around the United States.” We talk a lot about attacks on our elections from foreign powers, from hackers and bogeymen alike. But when the law is warped, when resources are taken away from other more pressing matters to fight bogus battles, it’s another sort of attack. It’s insidious. It’s, speaking frankly, legal malpractice (seriously, read the complaint).
We talk about this for the same reasons we talk about anything: Because information is power. Because, in an “ideal world,” elections could be left to election administrators, but that’s not the world we live in. Because, to some, a voice being heard is a threat in and of itself. Because right and wrong aren’t measured in grand gestures, but in small, seemingly innocuous ways. And because, until we can dock this constitutional boat safely at shore, we have to keep plugging the holes that try to sink us.
We talk about this because it matters.