The sprawling Republican effort to make voting more difficult has been derailed for the first time by a Democratic governor.
Laura Kelly of Kansas has vetoed two bills, one curbing the number of ballots third parties may collect and deliver and the other giving the Legislature total control over election rules. Both were drafted in response to developments in other states last year — decisions by courts and governors to ease access to the ballot during the pandemic, and Donald Trump's baseless claims that widespread fraud had robbed him of a second presidential term.
The measures now return to the capital, where both have more than enough support for a veto override in the Senate but appear to be a handful of votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. Kansas' 2021 legislative session lasts three more weeks.
While Georgia has been the focus of this year's intense nationwide fight over election legislation, in part because it was one of the purple states key to President Biden's win, the battle is also being fought in plenty of states Trump carried — with new curbs already enacted in Iowa and Montana and steadily advancing in Texas and Florida.
But the GOP holds all the levers of lawmaking power in all of them. Kansas is one of eight states with Democratic governors and Republican statehouses. Biden took 42 percent there last fall, only the sixth time since World War II when the Democratic nominee got more than two of every five votes.
This got the state's GOP agitated and fueled conspiracy theories — many about cheating at the hands of so-called "ballot harvesters" — that Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has labored to tamp down. He says voting in 2020 was "free and fair."
One of the vetoed measures would take Kansas off the roster of 26 states that permit voters to entrust anyone they like to deliver their completed absentee ballot. Both political parties and various campaign organizations use such laws to collect envelopes from sympathetic voters — mainly the elderly, poor and disabled as well as people living in remote areas such as Indian reservations.
But Republicans, fueled by Trump, have turned against the practice with a vengeance in recent years, arguing without much evidence that it encourages fraud. (The biggest such case of cheating, by far, involved a 2018 GOP congressional campaign in North Carolina.) The Supreme Court is now deliberating whether Arizona's curbs on third-party collection amounts of racially discriminatory voter suppression.
The Kansas bill would limit to 10 the number of ballots anyone could deliver, and also stiffen signature-match requirements on mail-in forms.
"Although Kansans have cast millions of ballots over the last decade, there remains no evidence of significant voter fraud," the governor said in a statement on Friday. "This bill is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. It is designed to disenfranchise Kansans, making it difficult for them to participate in the democratic process, not to stop voter fraud."
The other bill she vetoed would prevent her from changing election laws or procedures by executive order, and would bar the secretary of state from negotiating any settlements of election-related lawsuits without approval from the Legislature. But Kelly decreed no such alterations to voting procedures in 2020 and none were mandated in the state by the courts — putting Kansas in a distinct minority of just 16 states where neither thing happened in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
In her veto message, Kelly warned such a law could imperil the business climate in the state, as more and more companies have spoken out this spring against legislation that would curb ballot access.
The bill would respond, however, to the most prominent recent case of election malfeasance in Kansas, by requiring a brick-and-mortar residential address for all registered voters. The congressional career of Republican Steve Watkins came to an abrupt end after one term in 2020, partly after it was revealed he'd listed his home as a UPS store so he could vote illegally for a friend running for the city council in Topeka.
Kelly is running for a second term but is seen as one of the most electorally vulnerable governors in 2022.
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Over the past year, states have issued hundreds of rule changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, covering issues from public health and safety to business protocols to election procedures.
But one consequence of some of these emergency orders has been a shift in the balance of power at the state level. Ballotpedia reported Thursday that eight states have seen the governor's authority weakened by Covid-related legislation.
Governors generally have the authority to declare a state of emergency in cases of natural disasters, disease epidemics and other threats to public health. And in the early days of the pandemic, nearly all states issued lockdown or stay-at-home orders.
But in the months following, some states saw conflict between the executive and legislative branches on how to proceed with the orders. Lawmakers introduced hundreds of bills to limit gubernatorial emergency powers, and ultimately 10 were enacted in eight states.
Surprisingly, in most of those eight states, the same political party controlled the governorship and the legislature. Three were run by Republicans: Arkansas, Ohio and Utah. Two were Democratic: Colorado and New York. And the remaining three have Democratic governors and Republican-majority legislatures: Kansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Here is a rundown of how these eight states have placed new limits on the governor's emergency powers authority:
Last month, the Legislature passed and Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed legislation that limits statewide emergency declarations to 60 days unless extended by the governor. The new law also allows lawmakers to block any state of emergency extensions made by the governor.
Last summer, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill that requires the governor to communicate with and provide information to state lawmakers following an emergency declaration.
Two new laws regarding emergency powers have been enacted in the last year in Kansas. The first, approved last summer, extended the coronavirus state of emergency, while banning Gov. Laura Kelly from declaring any new states of emergency in 2020 without first receiving approval from the state finance council. The law also limits how long the governor can close businesses and terminates emergency proclamations after 15 days unless extended by the Legislature.
The second measure also extended Kansas's state of emergency, while further limiting the governor's emergency powers. It allows anyone burdened by executive order, school board policy or county health directive to file a civil action in court, which must be heard within 72 hours. The law also empowers the Legislative Coordinating Council to override gubernatorial executive orders.
In February, the Republican-majority General Assembly enacted two new restrictive bills by voting to override Democatic Gov. Andy Beshear's vetoes. The first law limits a governor's emergency orders to 30 days unless extended by the legislature. It also requires the governor to receive approval from the attorney general before suspending a statute via executive order during an emergency.
The second law grants legislative committees more oversight of the governor's emergency regulations and requires public input for some orders.
Last month, the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a new law that repeals a provision of a law passed last year that extended the governor's executive order powers during a pandemic. The new law also allows the Legislature to revoke any executive order through concurrent resolution. It also requires the governor to create a searchable website that tracks all executive actions made during a pandemic.
The Legislature voted last month to override Gov. Mike DeWine's veto of a bill that restricts the governor's authority over public health orders. The new measure allows the Legislature to cancel public health orders after 30 days and requires the governor to renew such orders every 60 days. It also establishes a legislative panel overseeing the governor's public health orders.
Last summer, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted a law prohibiting the governor from directing agencies to ignore public records requests during states of emergency. At the time, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he disagreed with the bill, but would "err on the side of transparency" and allow it to become law without his signature.
A constitutional amendment related to emergency declarations was also certified for the May 18 ballot. If approved by voters, the amendment would limit the governor's emergency declarations to 21 days unless the legislature extends them. It would also allow the General Assembly to pass a resolution, without needing the governor's signature, to extend or terminate an executive order during an emergency.
Last summer, the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert approved a measure that requires the governor to notify the legislative pandemic response team within 24 hours of taking any executive actions in response to a public health crisis, unless there is imminent threat to life or property. The law also allows the Legislature to issue a joint resolution to block any pandemic executive actions.
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Marcum is a fellow at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. Deaton is on the communications staff of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working "to prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government."
Thirteen months ago, we cheerfully reported on a little-covered House Rules Committee hearing that examined ways Congress could "reassert national security authorities it has long lost or delegated to the executive branch." We documented the "bipartisan goodwill" in the room and the seeming "genuine energy for reform."
Despite these good feelings, though, we warned that past optimism has too often been followed by inaction, and so it was up to Congress "to continue this important discussion."
The good news: A year later, we're still optimistic — in fact, even more so than before — thanks to two House committees and a growing bipartisan band of lawmakers interested in restoring Congress' institutional powers.
One day last month, both the Rules Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings reexamining Congress' war powers and the broad authorizations to use military power given to previous presidents but still in effect — in one case, almost two decades after being granted.
Before the Rules hearing, Democratic Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and ranking Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma released a joint statement explaining why the issue enjoys bipartisan interest. Their committee also highlighted the growing bipartisan consensus that the legislative branch needs to apply greater scrutiny on the executive branch's growing powers and lack of consultation with Congress on its numerous uses of military force.
During the Foreign Affairs hearing, ranking Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, for instance, explained that "wars should not be on autopilot" and "Congress owes our troops a clear commitment to the missions we are asking them to undertake." Democratic Chairman Gregory Meeks of New York similarly observed that an outdated congressional authorization for force "opens the door for future presidents to use force without working through Congress."
After both hearings, the chairmen released a joint statement summarizing the growing consensus that "executive authority on matters of war and peace has gone unchecked for many years" and declaring that Congress has a joint responsibility "when we send our uniformed men and women into harm's way." The chairmen concluded that these hearings would guide Congress' next steps to make "reform a reality."
One immediate reform is to repeal outdated and unnecessary authorizations for the use of military force. The most criticized is the 2002 measure, written to allow President George W. Bush to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, authorizing the president to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq."
But much has changed in the subsequent 19 years, of course. To begin, the United States is no longer at war with Iraq. Indeed, in the view of the State Department, Iraq is now "a key partner" in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the broad language has been stretched by subsequent presidents of both parties, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Donald Trump, to support military actions unrelated to ending Saddam Hussein's rule. And finally, as Jack Goldsmith, a high-ranking George W. Bush administration official, explained last month, the law is now "unnecessary" because "every use of force in which the 2002 AUMF was invoked could have been justified independently" — either by the 2001 authorization of force enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks or by the president's commander-in-chief constitutional powers.
Two days after the hearing, Foreign Affairs approved legislation to repeal the 2002 war authorization written by Democrat Barbara Lee of California, who cast the singular "no" vote in Congress against the 2001 use-of-force measure. The legislation enjoys seven Republican cosponsors along with its 105 Democratic backers.
Lee's legislation isn't the only bipartisan bill on this topic moving through Congress. A measure recently introduced by Democrats Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Jared Golden of Maine, along with Republicans Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Peter Meijer of Michigan, would repeal not only the 2002 law but also antiquated authorizations from 1991 (which precipitated the Persian Gulf War) and 1957 (to repel communism in the Middle East). There's also a Senate measure by Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Todd Young of Indiana to repeal both the 2002 and 1991 authorizations.
However, it is important that the effort not stop there. "Congress must do more than withdraw old permission slips and reduce America's heavy military presence abroad," Goldsmith wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month. "It should end its long acquiescence in presidential arrogation of war power by affirmatively prohibiting unilateral uses of force except in tightly defined circumstances of actual self-defense."
In other words, AUMF reform must be partnered with fundamental war powers reform to be effective.
In 2019, a coalition of good government groups articulated key principles for additional reform.
These include the reauthorization or sunset of all AUMFs after two years, a limitation on their scope, strengthened reporting requirements, tightened definitions of relevant terms such as "hostilities" and the cut-off of funds for any violations.
During a long Senate career that included almost four years as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, President Biden was a champion of stronger war powers for the legislative branch and weaker ones for the executive. But, historically, Congress hasn't been willing to take up this cause, while presidents of all ideologies have fought to protect their own expanding power.
Between the recent and widespread action in Congress and Biden's record as a senator, there finally may be the sort of cooperative spirit in Washington necessary to make war powers reform reality. As McGovern told his House Rules hearing, sometimes it is possible to catch "lightning in a bottle" — times such as this one.
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Goitein is a director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice,, a progressive think tank at New York University Law School, and a fellow at the University of Chicago's Center for Effective Government.
This is part of a series advocating for parts of legislation soon to be proposed in the House, dubbed the Protecting Our Democracy Act, designed to improve democracy's checks and balances by curbing presidential power.
In the last weeks of Donald Trump's presidency, anxiety grew over what he might do to try to hold on to the White House. Attention focused on emergency powers and whether he could exploit them to block the Electoral College vote count or deploy the military to prevent a peaceful transition of power. As it turned out, Trump wielded the power of an angry mob rather than the emergency authorities granted to the chief executive, and Congress certified the election results nonetheless.
But it would be a serious mistake to wipe our collective forehead and move on.
While invoking emergency powers would not have enabled all the actions people feared, many of them give presidents tools that could be used to undermine democracy.
House Democrats have written sweeping legislation, titling it the Protecting Our Democracy Act, that would significantly reduce these powers' potential for abuse. Congress should enact that bill now, before the memory of our nation's close call fades.
The measure contains two important reforms to emergency powers. The first focuses on the National Emergencies Act, under which presidents may declare a national emergency and thereby unlock enhanced powers contained in more than 120 different statutory provisions. Trump declared more national emergencies than any previous president over a four-year period. Most notably, he declared an emergency in order to secure billions of dollars in federal funding, which Congress had refused to provide, for a wall along the southern border.
Notwithstanding Trump's aggressive use of the NEA, he could have gone much further. Although no laws allow presidents to block vote counts or declare martial law, there is one statute that permits presidents, during a national emergency, to take over or shut down radio stations and communications facilities. Another law allows presidents to freeze the assets of anyone, including any American, for the purpose of addressing a foreign threat. Still others allow presidents to control domestic transportation, prohibit major exports — and even suspend the prohibition on government testing of chemical and biological agents on unwitting human subjects.
Congress' ability to check presidents' exercise of these powers is limited. As originally written in 1976, the NEA allowed Congress to terminate an emergency declaration using a "legislative veto" — a resolution, adopted by simple majorities of the House and Senate, that goes into effect without the president's signature. In 1983, however, the Supreme Court deemed legislative vetoes unconstitutional. Without that mechanism, the only current way for Congress to end a state of emergency against the president's wishes is to pass legislation with veto-proof two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate.
The new legislation would correct this imbalance of power by requiring emergency declarations to expire after 20 days if not approved by Congress. This would give presidents flexibility in the immediate throes of a crisis, while creating a backstop in the event of presidential overreach or abuse. There is broad bipartisan support for this approach: It is patterned on a measure by conservative GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, which was approved by the Homeland Security Committee in 2019 with the support of 12 of the committee's 14 members.
The new measure also addresses a second, less-well-known category of emergency powers — those reflected in presidential emergency action documents. These are directives drafted in anticipation of an assortment of worst-case scenarios, ready for the president's signature if any such scenario should come to pass. They originated as part of the Eisenhower administration's planning for a possible Soviet nuclear attack.
By Washington standards, presidential emergency action documents are an extraordinarily well-kept secret. None has ever been released or leaked. From other official documents, however, we know that draft directives in the Cold War's early decades purported to authorize martial law, censorship of the press, warrantless searches of property and the roundup and detention of "subversives." The current content of these documents is unknown, but they presumably reflect the outer limit of whatever powers a given administration claims to possess.
That's worrisome, as the executive branch's interpretations of its own power have only expanded in recent decades. Modern administrations increasingly argue the Constitution gives presidents broad "inherent" powers not specified in the actual text. We don't know the full extent of these claimed "inherent" powers because the legal opinions that describe them are often secret. Presidential emergency action documents, which quite likely rely on these claimed powers, are not even shared with Congress. By contrast, even highly classified covert military and intelligence operations must be shared with the Gang of Eight, the top leaders from each party in the House and Senate and the top lawmakers from each party on the two congressional Intelligence committees.
The new legislation includes a provision, modeled on a bill by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, that would require disclosure of presidential emergency action documents to the relevant committees of Congress. It would not require or permit public disclosure of any classified information. It would simply enable Congress to perform its constitutionally mandated oversight function, allowing lawmakers to exercise the power of the purse to prevent presidential abuses of power.
Some might argue these reforms are unnecessary now that Trump has left office. But he was not the first president to abuse emergency powers — recall the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the CIA's torture of detainees after Sept. 11 under President George W. Bush — and he surely will not be the last.
Delaying reform because the potential for abuse has temporarily lessened is the civic equivalent of leaving a leak in the roof unfixed because it just stopped raining. Congress should move swiftly to enact these and other provisions of the new legislation before the next storm hits.
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