Often known as the "Elections Clause," Article I, Section 4, Clause 1 of the Constitution outlines the powers given to Congress and the states regarding elections. The text itself is brief, which leaves many of the details up to Congress and the Supreme Court.
"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."
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
Article I, Section 4, Clause 1 empowers both Congress and state legislatures to regulate the times, places, and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives. Not until 1842, when it passed a law requiring the election of Representatives by districts,1 did Congress undertake to exercise this power. In subsequent years, Congress expanded on the requirements, successively adding contiguity, compactness, and substantial equality of population to the districting requirements.2 However, no challenge to the seating of Members-elect selected in violation of these requirements was ever successful,3 and Congress deleted the standards from the 1929 Apportionment Act.4
In 1866, Congress was more successful in legislating to remedy a situation under which deadlocks in state legislatures over the election of Senators were creating vacancies in the office. The act required the two houses of each legislature to meet in joint session on a specified day and to meet every day thereafter until a Senator was selected.5
The first comprehensive federal statute dealing with elections was adopted in 1870 as a means of enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee against racial discrimination in granting suffrage rights.6 Under the Enforcement Act of 1870, and subsequent laws, false registration, bribery, voting without legal right, making false returns of votes cast, interference in any manner with officers of election, and the neglect by any such officer of any duty required of him by state or federal law were made federal offenses.7 Provision was made for the appointment by federal judges of persons to attend at places of registration and at elections with authority to challenge any person proposing to register or vote unlawfully, to witness the counting of votes, and to identify by their signatures the registration of voters and election tally sheets.8 When the Democratic Party regained control of Congress, these pieces of Reconstruction legislation dealing specifically with elections were repealed,9 but other statutes prohibiting interference with civil rights generally were retained and these were used in later years.
More recently, Congress has enacted legislation to protect the right to vote in all elections, federal, state, and local, through the assignment of federal registrars and poll watchers, suspension of literacy and other tests, and the broad proscription of intimidation and reprisal, whether with or without state action.10
Another chapter was begun in 1907 when Congress passed the Tillman Act, prohibiting national banks and corporations from making contributions in federal elections.11 The Corrupt Practices Act, first enacted in 1910 and replaced by another law in 1925, extended federal regulation of campaign contributions and expenditures in federal elections,12 and other acts have similarly provided other regulations.13
As noted above, although § 2, cl. 1, of this Article vests in the states the responsibility, now limited, to establish voter qualifications for congressional elections, the Court has held that the right to vote for Members of Congress is derived from the Federal Constitution,14 and that Congress, therefore, may legislate under this section of the Article to protect the integrity of this right. Congress may protect the right of suffrage against both official and private abridgment.15
Where a primary election is an integral part of the procedure of choice, the right to vote in that primary election is subject to congressional protection.16 The right embraces, of course, the opportunity to cast a ballot and to have it counted honestly.17 Freedom from personal violence and intimidation may be secured.18 The integrity of the process may be safeguarded against a failure to count ballots lawfully cast19 or the dilution of their value by the stuffing of the ballot box with fraudulent ballots.20 But the bribery of voters, although within reach of congressional power under other clauses of the Constitution, has been held not to be an interference with the rights guaranteed by this section to other qualified voters.21
To accomplish the ends under this clause, Congress may adopt the statutes of the states and enforce them by its own sanctions.22 It may punish a state election officer for violating his duty under a state law governing congressional elections.23 It may, in short, use its power under this clause, combined with the Necessary and Proper Clause, to regulate the times, places, and manner of electing Members of Congress so as to fully safeguard the integrity of the process; it may not, however, under this clause, provide different qualifications for electors than those provided by the states.24
By its terms, Article I, Section 4, Clause 1, also contemplates the times, places, and manner of holding elections being prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof, subject to alteration by Congress (except as to the place of choosing Senators). However, the Court did not have occasion to address what constitutes regulation by a state Legislature for purposes of the Elections Clause until its 2015 decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.25 There, the Court rejected the Arizona legislature's challenge to the validity of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC) and AIRC's 2012 map of congressional districts.26 The Commission had been established by a 2000 ballot initiative, which removed redistricting authority from the legislature and vested it in the AIRC.27 The legislature asserted that this arrangement violated the Elections Clause because the Clause contemplates regulation by a state "Legislature" and "Legislature" means the state's representative assembly.28
The Court disagreed and held that Arizona's use of an independent commission to establish congressional districts is permissible because the Elections Clause uses the word Legislature to describe "the power that makes laws," a term that is broad enough to encompass the power provided by the Arizona constitution for the people to make laws through ballot initiatives.29 In so finding, the Court noted that the word Legislature has been construed in various ways depending upon the constitutional provision in which it is used, and its meaning depends upon the function that the entity denominated as the Legislature is called upon to exercise in a specific context.30 Here, in the context of the Elections Clause, the Court found that the function of the Legislature was lawmaking and that this function could be performed by the people of Arizona via an initiative consistent with state law.31 The Court also pointed to dictionary definitions from the time of the Framers;32 the Framers' intent in adopting the Elections Clause;33 the harmony between the initiative process and the Constitution's conception of the people as the font of governmental power;34 and the practical consequences of invalidating the Arizona initiative.35
State authority to regulate the times, places, and manner of holding congressional elections has been described by the Court as "embrac[ing] authority to provide a complete code for congressional elections...; in short, to enact the numerous requirements as to procedure and safeguards which experience shows are necessary in order to enforce the fundamental rights involved."36 The Court has upheld a variety of state laws designed to ensure that elections—including federal elections – are fair and honest and orderly.37 But the Court distinguished state laws that go beyond the protection of the integrity and regularity of the election process, and instead operate to disadvantage a particular class of candidates.38 Term limits, viewed as serving the dual purposes of disadvantaging a particular class of candidates and evading the dictates of the Qualifications Clause, crossed this line,39 as did ballot labels identifying candidates who disregarded voters' instructions on term limits or declined to pledge support for them.40 "[T]he Framers understood the Elections Clause as a grant of authority to issue procedural regulations, and not as a source of power to dictate electoral outcomes, to favor or disfavor a class of candidates, or to evade important constitutional restraints."41