President Biden and his media partisans are stepping up the pressure campaign on Joe Manchin. The West Virginia senator is the only Democrat in the upper chamber who hasn’t signed on to H.R.1, styled the For the People Act, an unprecedented federal takeover of U.S. election laws that the House passed in March and that the Senate plans to consider this month. The bill’s supporters describe it as a vital safeguard of democracy, but it’s the opposite: If enacted it would destroy the Constitution’s careful balance of federal and state powers, taking common election safeguards along with it.
H.R.1 plainly exceeds Congress’s power to regulate presidential elections, as we argued in these pages in February. That’s only the start of its constitutional infirmities.
The primary asserted constitutional basis of H.R.1 is Article I’s Elections Clause, which authorizes state legislatures to establish the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, while providing that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (2013), the Supreme Court held that several state election-integrity measures were invalid because federal law pre-empted them.
Yet H.R.1’s sponsors fail to recognize that the Elections Clause limits Congress’s authority to time, place and manner. “Prescribing voting qualifications,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court in 2013, “forms no part of the power to be conferred upon the national government by the Elections Clause.” Article I’s Qualifications Clause provides that “the electors”—that is, voters—“in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.” Determining those qualifications is up to the states, except where the Constitution says otherwise—for instance in the 19th and 26th amendment, enfranchising women and 18-year-olds, respectively.
Yet H.R.1 purports to establish federal voter qualifications for congressional elections. A prime example is the section mandating “democracy restoration”—a euphemism for enfranchising felons except during imprisonment, a decision the Constitution leaves to the states. The bill’s provisions governing internet voter registration, automatic registration and same-day registration are also suspect. Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting in Inter Tribal Council, argued that registration is a matter of qualifications, not manner. Scalia and the majority didn’t disagree, so that issue remains open for adjudication.