Role of the States in Regulating Federal Elections

prev | next
ArtI.S4.C1. Role of the States in Regulating Federal Elections

Article I, Section 4, Clause 1:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

By its terms, Article I, Section 4, Clause 1, also contemplates the times, places, and manner of holding elections being “prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof,” subject to alteration by Congress (except as to the place of choosing Senators). However, the Court did not have occasion to address what constitutes regulation by a state “Legislature” for purposes of the Elections Clause until its 2015 decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.1 There, the Court rejected the Arizona legislature’s challenge to the validity of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC) and AIRC’s 2012 map of congressional districts.2 The Commission had been established by a 2000 ballot initiative, which removed redistricting authority from the legislature and vested it in the AIRC.3 The legislature asserted that this arrangement violated the Elections Clause because the Clause contemplates regulation by a state “Legislature” and “Legislature” means the state’s representative assembly.4

The Court disagreed and held that Arizona’s use of an independent commission to establish congressional districts is permissible because the Elections Clause uses the word “Legislature” to describe “the power that makes laws,” a term that is broad enough to encompass the power provided by the Arizona constitution for the people to make laws through ballot initiatives.5 (c), a statutory provision that the Court construed as safeguarding to “each state full authority to employ in the creation of congressional districts its own laws and regulations.” Id. at 19. In so finding, the Court noted that the word “Legislature” has been construed in various ways depending upon the constitutional provision in which it is used, and its meaning depends upon the function that the entity denominated as the “Legislature” is called upon to exercise in a specific context.6 Here, in the context of the Elections Clause, the Court found that the function of the “Legislature” was lawmaking and that this function could be performed by the people of Arizona via an initiative consistent with state law.7 The Court also pointed to dictionary definitions from the time of the Framers;8 the Framers’ intent in adopting the Elections Clause;9 the “harmony” between the initiative process and the Constitution’s “conception of the people as the font of governmental power;” 10 and the practical consequences of invalidating the Arizona initiative.11

State authority to regulate the times, places, and manner of holding congressional elections has been described by the Court as “embrac[ing] authority to provide a complete code for congressional elections ...; in short, to enact the numerous requirements as to procedure and safeguards which experience shows are necessary in order to enforce the fundamental rights involved.” 12 The Court has upheld a variety of state laws designed to ensure that elections—including federal elections – are fair and honest and orderly.13 But the Court distinguished state laws that go beyond “protection of the integrity and regularity of the election process,” and instead operate to disadvantage a particular class of candidates.14 Term limits, viewed as serving the dual purposes of “disadvantaging a particular class of candidates and evading the dictates of the Qualifications Clause,” crossed this line,15 as did ballot labels identifying candidates who disregarded voters’ instructions on term limits or declined to pledge support for them.16 “[T]he Framers understood the Elections Clause as a grant of authority to issue procedural regulations, and not as a source of power to dictate electoral outcomes, to favor or disfavor a class of candidates, or to evade important constitutional restraints.” 17

576 U.S. ___, No. 13-1314, slip op. (2015). back
Id. at 2–3. back
Id. back
Id. at 2. back
Id. at 18. The Court also found that the use of the commission was permissible under 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c), a statutory provision that the Court construed as safeguarding to “each state full authority to employ in the creation of congressional districts its own laws and regulations.” Id. at 19. back
Id. at 18. back
Id. back
Id. at 24 (noting that “dictionaries, even those in circulation during the founding era, capaciously define the word ‘legislature’” to include as “[t]he power that makes laws” and “the Authority of making laws” ). back
Id. at 25 ( “The dominant purpose of the Elections Clause . . . was to empower Congress to override state election rules, not to restrict the way States enact legislation. . . . [T]he Clause ‘was the Framers’ insurance against the possibility that a State would refuse to provide for the election of representatives to the Federal Congress.’” ). back
Id. at 30 ( “The Framers may not have imagined the modern initiative process in which the people of a State exercise legislative power coextensive with the authority of an institutional legislature. But the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power.” ). back
Id. at 31, 33 (noting that it would be “perverse” to interpret the term “Legislature” to exclude the initiative, because the initiative is intended to check legislators’ ability to determine the boundaries of the districts in which they run, and that a contrary ruling would invalidate a number of other state provisions regarding initiatives and referendums). back
Smiley v. Holm, 285 U.S. 355, 366 (1932). back
See, e.g., Storer v. Brown, 415 U.S. 724 (1974) (restrictions on independent candidacies requiring early commitment prior to party primaries); Roudebush v. Hartke, 405 U.S. 15, 25 (1972) (recount for Senatorial election); and Munro v. Socialist Workers Party, 479 U.S. 189 (1986) (requirement that minor party candidate demonstrate substantial support—1% of votes cast in the primary election—before being placed on ballot for general election). back
U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779, 835 (1995). back
U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995). back
Cook v. Gralike, 531 U.S. 510 (2001). back
Thornton, 514 U.S. at 833–34. back

The following state regulations pages link to this page.