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White House Hopefuls Face Low Barriers to Entry

There used to be a time when voters had to choose from a much smaller pool of candidates. Meanwhile the Voting Rights Act lives and ways to encourage poll workers.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, candidate for president. (TNS)
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White House Hopefuls Face Low Barriers to Entry: When 2020 began, Pete Buttigieg was just ending his service as the mayor of South Bend, Ind., then the 307th largest city in the country. By the end of the year, he’d been nominated to run the federal Department of Transportation, becoming arguably the single best-known individual serving in President Biden’s Cabinet with a husband who’s a best-selling memoirist.

Running for president turned out to be a great career move for Buttigieg. It’s a game where you don’t have to win to come out way ahead. That’s one big reason why 11 Republicans are currently running, with former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum all making it official last week. On Thursday, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez joined the crowd.

There was a time when voters had to choose only among a half-dozen or so candidates. In 1988, after better-known Democrats such as Bill Bradley and Sam Nunn opted not to run, the remaining candidates were known collectively as the “seven dwarfs.” But the big Republican field for 2024 follows two dozen Democratic hopefuls in 2020 and more than a dozen Republicans defeated by Donald Trump back in 2016.

There’s almost no downside to running these days. Nearly anyone halfway serious can count on extensive attention from media outlets desperate for something to cover for a year ahead of actual voting. Candidates with no chance of winning can spend the campaign season auditioning for possible vice presidential or Cabinet slots, or looking to charm television bookers. “It used to be that if you were running for president, you had to go into a state, establish a campaign and build an organization, and all of that required a lot of money,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics. “Once the party started to do national debates, people saw that as a way of promoting their books, themselves, whatever.”

Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee established a set of qualifying criteria for its first debate of the cycle, set for Aug. 23. Everyone on the stage will need donations from at least 40,000 people in 20 different states, plus a 1 percent or better showing in three separate polls. That may sound pretty minimal, but it’s something. Parties have very little power in terms of preventing people from running. There was a time when party elders decided things at conventions, or at least controlled the spigots of money with their donor lists, says Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs a blog about primaries called FrontloadingHQ.

Today’s candidates can raise money themselves while talking directly to voters through the Internet. “Due to that decentralization, candidates do not necessarily face penalties, like a primary challenge, for testing the waters,” Putnam says. “A candidate can take a flier on a run, see where it goes and get out with little cost if it goes nowhere.”

That’s why even on the Democratic side, where Biden’s nomination is assured, no-hope flakes like Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are running (and getting media coverage). “These people are not running for president,” Kamarck says. “These people are running to aggrandize themselves, and they’ve got no business running for president.”
A long line of voters in Connecticut during the 2020 presidential elections
A long line of voters in Connecticut during the 2020 presidential elections. (TNS)
The Voting Rights Act Lives: There are currently 3,000 lawsuits pending around the country challenging districts, from city council to Congress, as racially discriminatory. Not all those cases will amount to much, but they all have a better chance of succeeding thanks to a Supreme Court decision last week.

The Supreme Court had gutted much of the Voting Rights Act in recent years, but it shocked the political world by refusing to end certain protections under Section 2 of the law. Black residents make up more than a quarter of Alabama’s population, yet the state’s congressional map gave Black candidates a realistic shot at winning only one out of seven U.S. House seats. “The Alabama case is about as straightforward an example of a Section 2 violation as you can get,” says Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

The decision had immediate political repercussions. The Cook Political Report shifted its ratings of five U.S. House seats in three different states toward the Democrats. Civil rights groups petitioned a district court to lift a stay that had been placed on a Louisiana lawsuit, pending the outcome of the Alabama case. Only one of Louisiana’s six congressional districts is predominantly Black, even though African Americans make up a third of the state population. A Georgia case this fall will determine whether the state needs to create an additional Black district.

But cases in Texas are moving too slowly to be resolved in time for 2024, Li says, while there is no pending Section 2 case in South Carolina. In the wake of the Supreme Court action, there’s been speculation that the Michigan state Senate map could be challenged, but voting dynamics in Michigan look a lot different, and less racially polarized, than in Alabama. The court has essentially preserved its own complicated, three-prong test for proving discrimination under Section 2.

That means that while it’s still possible to bring cases, they remain difficult to win due to earlier decisions and congressional inaction. “Even Section 2 at full strength leaves a lot of discrimination on the table, because it is a technical and demanding statute,” Li says. “Section 2 was hard to use before. It didn’t get any harder, but it didn’t get any easier, either.”
Workers process ballots at a Los Angeles County facility
Workers process ballots at a Los Angeles County facility. (TNS)
Ways to Encourage Poll Workers: There are plenty of occupations right now where there are labor shortages. Running polling places is among them. National elections require 1 million people to work at the polls. The lack of help means that lines move more slowly and some polling places could be closed altogether.

Several states reported shortages of poll workers last year and they have reason to be nervous about next year. The average age of poll workers is in their 60s, a group that grew wary of service during the pandemic election of 2020. For citizens of any age, it’s not an obviously appealing job – a long day offering little pay.

To address these issues, the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center has just released a set of recommendations to make it easier to find and retain poll workers, including recruiting heavily among young people. College students should be able to work where they’re going to school, even if they’re not registered to vote locally, the group contends. And, while many states allow high school students to work, including those under the age of 18, this should become universal. “Utilizing high school students as poll workers, including those who are too young to be eligible to vote, is a win-win,” the report concludes, “as it helps expand the pool of tech-savvy poll workers while also introducing young people to the election process.”

Election boards should think more like employers, the center suggests, making it easier and more enticing to sign up. Each state should maintain single-stop shopping, allowing people to apply via a single website regardless of their home jurisdiction, rather than allowing a patchwork of different forms to proliferate by county. The job should pay more – at least equivalent to the local minimum wage – while offering better training and allowing some workers to come in for partial shifts, rather than everyone having to stay for full days lasting 12 hours or more.

The Fair Elections Center is not the only group exploring ways of finding more poll workers. Vet the Vote has recruited 63,000 veterans or their family members to work at polls. It’s an idea that has the blessing of the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC).

“They’ve already taken an oath to uphold our Constitution,” says Christy McCormick, who chairs the EAC. “They’ve invested their careers in our democracy, and I believe they’re highly trusted. The more we can get them involved, the better our elections are going to be.”

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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