Jon Gould and I wrote this column in the Atlantic about election reforms that Congress could pursue through budget reconciliation. This is definitely a Plan B compared to enacting the For the People Act and the John Lewis VRA through regular legislative procedures. But if the filibuster blocks progress on those bills, Congress should harness the power of federal dollars to improve American democracy. In this vein, it’s highly encouraging that the Democrats’ reconciliation instructions include the House and Senate Judiciary Committees — the bodies responsible for addressing election issues. Democracy may well join health care, child care, immigration, climate change, etc. in the Democrats’ reconciliation mega-bill.
Fortunately, a (partial) work-around exists that would allow democracy advocates to enact (some of) their agenda. This work-around is the same vehicle that’s being used to pass almost every other Democratic legislative priority: budget reconciliation. (Reconciliation is a special legislative process that fast-tracks certain types of bills—most notably by exempting them from the 60-vote threshold ordinarily needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.) The Democrats are already making use of reconciliation to address infrastructure, health care, education, climate change, and immigration. Election reform belongs on this list too.
It’s true that many needed election reforms—including the stuck democracy bills—are ineligible for reconciliation. Those approaches mostly rely on command-and-control regulation. They require states to adopt certain policies, such as automatic voter registration and mail-in voting, and forbid states from doing other things, such as gerrymandering and disenfranchising formerly incarcerated people. These mandates and bans aren’t allowed under reconciliation.
But reconciliation does permit measures that harness the power of federal dollars to improve elections. To be eligible for reconciliation, provisions need to have a budgetary impact—to raise or spend money. This fiscal effect also has to be meaningful. It can’t be “merely incidental” to the achievement of non-budgetary objectives. So command-and-control regulation is out, but monetary carrots and sticks that reshape actors’ incentives can be very much in.
An example of a fiscal carrot is a voucher for every eligible voter who actually votes: Cast a ballot, collect a check. This policy would be a potent response to the voting restrictions proliferating across the country. Those restrictions raise the cost of voting by adding time and hassle to the process. A voucher for every voter would offset that higher cost by increasing the benefit of voting. And if paying people to vote sounds outlandish, remember that’s exactly what we do for another civic duty: jury service. Every state compensates jurors for their work.
A second example, which could be a carrot or a stick, is funding for states that enact prodemocracy reforms. Congress could offer generous grants to states that institute policies such as automatic voter registration, mail-in voting, and independent redistricting commissions. Congress could also withhold election funds from states that refuse to take these steps. Federal dollars could thus be a reward for states that strengthen democracy—and a penalty for states that don’t.
City and county governments are a third potential group of funding recipients. In 2020, private donors gave hundreds of millions of dollars to municipalities to help them run their elections. Bizarrely, several red states have since prohibited these gifts. Congress could circumvent these bans by simply disbursing money to cities and counties, no strings attached, for election administration. These payments would enable municipalities to hire more election officials, to set up more polling places, to buy better equipment—in short, to make voting less of a chore.
And fourth, a robust system of public financing could make candidates less dependent on big donors. A proposal for such a system already exists in the For the People Act, and could be cleaved off from the bill’s regulatory provisions. Under this program, participating candidates would receive six federal dollars for each private dollar that’s given to them (for contributions up to $200). In return, they would forswear all other contributions and expenditures. As a result, these politicians would be less beholden to private funders and more responsive to their constituents. At least, that’s the program’s hope.