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Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that the Department of Justice would be suing the state of Georgia over its recent voting rights changes. While the case is obviously directed at the Georgia lawmakers who passed the new restrictions and the governor who signed them into law, a broader challenge was also quietly being announced by the judge-turned-attorney general.

https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/why-doj-s-georgia-election-lawsuit-warning-shot-scotus-n1272436

Why are American states permitted to vote their own election laws? Wouldn't it make more sense to only allow the federal government to vote their own election laws and then force the states to abide by those rules? Why are the states given the right to do so? I believe this is not so in other countries, so there must be a particular reason for this.

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    American politics is permissive - anything is allowed unless it's forbidden. It's a wrong question to ask why x is allowed since that is the default - it's more correct to ask why x is not forbidden. Removing freedoms from people, companies, associations, cities, or states is something that requires a strong argument for intervention. If working solutions exist that do not require removing freedoms and restricting activity then the American system is likely to leave the status-quo to be.
    – J...
    Jun 28 at 15:32
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    @Sayaman you must not be from around here. The "federal government" is not the states' mother. Every US State is independently sovereign, yet United by consent to be part of a shared republic for common defense, currency, highways and a few other things. The purpose of that federal republic is not to control the states, but to serve them. There are relatiely few federal-level contests on voting ballots here. only every other year, and then only a couple federal contests on a ballot that might have 20-30 total contests. Most issues are state or local. So obviously states self-regulate.
    – Billy C.
    Jun 28 at 23:35
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Amendment 10

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Your question assumes a fundamental misconception of the nature of the USA. The USA is a federal country. The States are generally free to pass laws as they see fit, that includes election laws, subject to the constitution. The Federal government doesn't have the right to pass laws, except subject to the (fairly broad) conditions set down by the constitution. There is nothing in the constitution that allows the federal government to micromanage state elections of representatives and Senators.

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    That doesn’t sound right. Congress absolutely has the right to set laws to regulate state run elections if they choose to, the Voting Rights Act being one example. Not even the conservative majority in Shelby disagreed with that. Can you clarify how this answer fits with examples like that?
    – divibisan
    Jun 26 at 19:08
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    Again, what about previous federal voting laws, or the principle “one man one vote” that was upheld IIRC federally? Does the federal government have zero influence on election practice? Jun 26 at 20:52
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    @divibisan: It's really simple. The Federal government can only intervene if a state enacts laws that (it can argue) are in violation of the US Constitution. So if for instance a state enacted a law banning women from voting (or even making it more difficult for them than for men), that would be a violation of the 19th Amendment. But saying all voters can vote by mail (which my state did in the last election) is the state's choice on how it wants to manage the election.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 26 at 23:59
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    Article I, section 4: "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". Art 2, Sec 1, 2nd para is about the same for electors for President Jun 27 at 2:46
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    @divibisan: The Voting Rights Act is only to insure that state elections comply with Constitutional provisions.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 27 at 16:31
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US election laws are a mainly left up to the individual states because the Constitution delegates broad election-related powers to the states. The federal government can create certain election laws that all states must adhere to, however these laws are generally limited to only specific protections outlined by the Constitution.

First off, according to the Tenth Amendment, the federal government's powers are limited to only what is delegated to it by the Constitution:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

So, if the Constitution doesn't imply that the federal government can do something, then it's generally up to the state governments to handle it.

For election laws, the relevant powers are outlined in numerous articles and amendments. Here are few examples of powers granted to the individual states:

  • Article One describes how representatives are simply chosen by 'the people' of each state, and senators were originally chosen by state legislatures:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

  • Article Two describes how presidential electors are appointed in whatever way a state legislature 'may direct':

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

As you can see, originally the Constitution delegates broad powers to the states to handle federal elections. However, several articles and amendments define some protections that the state election laws needed to follow, and give the federal government the power to make laws to enforce them:

  • As mentioned above, Article One gave states some broad powers to decide how members of Congress are elected, however Section 4 of Article One also gives Congress the power to make laws covering the 'time' or 'manner' of those congressional elections:

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.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • The Seventeenth Amendment changed the way that senators were elected to match that of the representatives, thus taking some of the power away from the state legislatures:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

There are some other articles/sections/amendments that cover election stuff, but you can see how the Constitution typically defines where the federal government can make election laws: it outlines a topic or protection that must be respected across the country, and explicitly gives Congress the power to make and enforce laws that guarantee those protections.

So, to sum it all up: election laws in the US are mainly handled by the individual states because the Constitution gives them broad powers to do so, either explicitly in various articles or more broadly through the Tenth Amendment. There are a few areas where the federal government can enforce election laws across all of the states, but these areas are fairly limited in scope so most of the power still rests in the hands of each state.

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    You omitted an important constitutional provision: 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." This is only with respect to federal elections; the Congress cannot tell states how to "chuse" state representatives and state senators, subject to voting rights.
    – Wastrel
    Jun 27 at 15:11
  • @Wastrel: Thanks, when I was going through and grabbing all of the citations I was just thinking about all of the civil rights amendments, I completely missed that section right in Article I. It's definitely one of the more important ones covering federal power, and I just added it to my answer.
    – Giter
    Jun 27 at 17:00
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    "because the Constitution gives them broad powers" --> Hmm, I thought it was not so much what the Constitution gives to the states as much as what was given by the states to the federal government and what states retained. Jun 28 at 13:42
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    @chux-ReinstateMonica Agreed, the Constitution does not delegate those powers to the states, the states reserved them when the Constitution was adopted. The current wording in this answer promotes the confusion of non-Americans with regards to the federal system.
    – gormadoc
    Jun 28 at 17:06
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Answers and comments about article I,section 4 of the US constitution, as well as the tenth amendment are spot on for the implementation around how it works that states do this, but the other answers don’t mention an important point, in my view, around why:

The general idea of representatives holding federal office in the US is mostly based on the idea that the States themselves are the ones who nominate and even vote for (i.e.: electoral college) federal office holders. States elect the president, states send representatives and senators to the congress. Individual American citizens aren’t the ones appointing these federal office holders, at least not directly.

In general the constitution wasn’t as concerned with identifying the rights of individuals around government representation as it was around outlining how the states would still be power holders in the federal system.

When viewed in these terms it makes more sense that the states manage their own elections.

There are lots of, frankly valid, discussions within the US on wether individual representation is hampered by the state centric system in place, but knowing the system is mostly centered around the states is an important point when asking something about why US laws do something involving the Federal government.

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    Agreed. The United States are... well... a set of states that are united. They're a federation of independent region states (more like the EU than like any country within the EU, and it doesn't surprise us that individual EU countries each have their own election laws, and their own way of selecting who they want to be the executive head of the EU). About the only times the federal government intervenes is when there's a case of discrimination by race/religion/disability/etc, since that makes it an "equal protection" issue, which is the purview of the federal gov't.
    – Jemenake
    Jun 28 at 22:25
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Why are American states permitted to vote their own election laws? Wouldn't it make more sense to only allow the federal government to vote their own election laws and then force the states to abide by those rules? Why are the states given the right to do so? I believe this is not so in other countries, so there must be a particular reason for this.

At the time of the founding of the United States, the states already had election laws for their own legislatures and executive officers. In deciding who should make election laws for the election of Representatives, the Convention left it to the states, as explained in Federalist 52 (with regard to the election of Representatives).

FROM the more general inquiries pursued in the four last papers, I pass on to a more particular examination of the several parts of the government. I shall begin with the House of Representatives. The first view to be taken of this part of the government relates to the qualifications of the electors and the elected. Those of the former are to be the same with those of the electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

The definition of the right of suffrage is very justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government. It was incumbent on the convention, therefore, to define and establish this right in the Constitution. To have left it open for the occasional regulation of the Congress, would have been improper for the reason just mentioned.1 To have submitted it to the legislative discretion of the States, would have been improper for the same reason; and for the additional reason that it would have rendered too dependent on the State governments that branch of the federal government which ought to be dependent on the people alone. To have reduced the different qualifications in the different States to one uniform rule, would probably have been as dissatisfactory to some of the States as it would have been difficult to the convention. The provision made by the convention appears, therefore, to be the best that lay within their option. [Emboldening added.]

1 Explanatory note: To have left it to regulation by Congress would have violated republican form of government.


Later, the election of Senators and presidential electors followed from the same standards as the election of Representatives.

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    This is the correct answer. The Constitution specified what was needed at the time of ratification. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to make laws over the states, so the only means to make laws that would elect the first constitutional Congress was by the states themselves.
    – DrSheldon
    Jun 28 at 9:01
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One thing that people from outside (and some inside) the United States need to understand is, when the country was formed it wasn't from one large region splitting from Great Britain. It was thirteen separate colonies each with their own cultures that formed an alliance to gain independence. After the American Revolution the States barely worked together, and often not at all. When the Articles of Confederation failed to maintain a unified country, the U.S. Constitution was created as a document that gave some federal authority to control things that should be centralized such war and international trade, but left everything else to the States, otherwise they wouldn't have agreed to it.

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