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Presidential Control of Elections

Posted by on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Articles, Volume 74, Volume 74, Number 2.

Lisa Marshall Manheim | 74 Vand. L. Rev. 385 (2021) |

In recent decades, presidents of both political parties have asserted increasingly aggressive forms of influence over the administrative state. During this same period, Congress has expanded the role that the federal government plays in election administration. The convergence of these two trends leads to a troubling but underexamined phenomenon: presidential control of elections. Relying on their official powers, presidents have the ability to affect the rules that govern elections, including elections meant to check and legitimize presidential powers in the first place. This self-serving arrangement heightens the risk of harms from political entrenchment and subordination of expertise. These harms, in turn, threaten to compromise election outcomes. By extension, they also threaten the electoral connection purportedly underlying the administrative state and, therefore, the legitimacy of the work of the modern executive branch.

This Article identifies, defines, and examines this phenomenon— presidential control of elections—and explores its broader implications. It demonstrates that, across the executive branch, this phenomenon manifests differently, and sometimes counterintuitively, in ways that tend to track how Congress has structured the relevant grant of power. Three forms dominate, with presidents influencing election administration primarily through priority setting (for grants of power running through executive agencies), promotion of gridlock (for grants of power running through independent agencies), and idiosyncratic control (for grants of power running directly to the president). This analysis reveals that congressional efforts at insulation at times can backfire, with presidents able to exercise particularly problematic forms of control over agencies that Congress designed in blunt ways to resist presidential influence. To that end, this Article proposes that Congress and the courts avoid trying to eliminate or otherwise indiscriminately curb presidential control of elections— a quixotic endeavor that would give rise to its own constitutional challenges and normative harms. Instead, the legislative and judicial branches should identify specific areas where the president’s control over election administration lacks an effective check and seek to empower other political actors in those spaces.

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Lisa Marshall Manheim