Below is the abstract for “Election Law Localism and Democracy,” available for download on SSRN.

American federal and state elections are largely run by local officials. Although election law is almost entirely determined by the federal government and the states, elections are actually conducted by thousands of different county and city elections offices. This decentralization of election administration has often, and fairly, been criticized as resulting in undesirable interlocal variation in the application of election rules, inefficiency, and racial discrimination. Yet, in 2020, local election administration, particularly in large urban areas, was a source of strength. Local officials proved to be resilient, innovative, and attentive to local conditions. The record-high turnout in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic was in considerable part due to their efforts to make voting easier and more accessible. These efforts, in turn, have triggered a reaction, with many states adopting new laws intended to curtail local authority.

This Article examines the local role in the 2020 election, together with the state pushback of 2021, as a study of both the surprising significance of local officials in promoting democracy and the place of local government in our intergovernmental system more generally. Local election offices are among the least formally empowered units of local government. They are charged solely with implementing state laws and policies. Yet, the 2020 election indicates they can exercise their authority to promote democracy in their communities. On the other hand, as with local governments generally, local power in election administration is fragile and can be stripped away by hostile state-level forces. By showcasing the importance of local elections officials, the 2020 election has made them a new site of conflict over the strength of American democracy.

Richard Briffault

Reporter, Government Ethics

Richard Briffault is the Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School. His research, writing, and teaching focus on state and local government law, legislation, the law of the political process, government ethics, and property. In 2014, he was appointed chair of the Conflicts of Interest Board of New York City. He was a member of New York State’s Moreland Act Commission to Investigate Public Corruption from 2013 to 2014, and served as a member of, or consultant to, several city and state commissions in New York dealing with state and local governance.


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