SCOTUS Safeguards County Role In Federal Elections Administration

The United States Supreme Court’s decision to reject the “independent state legislature theory” preserves the counties’ ability to set rules and make decisions about federal elections.

In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the federal elections clause does not vest exclusive and independent authority in state legislatures to set the rules regarding federal elections and therefore did not bar the North Carolina Supreme Court from reviewing the North Carolina legislature’s congressional districting plans for compliance with North Carolina law.

By a vote of 6-3, the court rejected the so-called “independent state legislature theory,” holding that the North Carolina Supreme Court did not violate the Constitution when it set aside a congressional map adopted by the state’s legislature. This ruling preserves the authority, flexibility, and discretion needed by county governments to fulfill the duty to administer free and fair elections and maintain the integrity and security of elections at the local level.

Moore v. Harper started over a dispute over the legality of the 2020 North Carolina congressional districting map, which was drawn by the state legislature but invalidated as partisan gerrymandering by the North Carolina Supreme Court. The legislature sued, arguing via the ISLT that the Elections Clause of the federal Constitution gives the state legislature, with no oversight by the state court, the authority to oversee federal elections.

While states play an instrumental role in our nation’s elections, counties administer and fund elections locally, overseeing polling places and coordinating poll workers every two years. According to the National Association of Counties (NACo), in its most extreme interpretation, the ISLT would have far-reaching consequences prohibiting any entity other than a state legislature, including local governments, from setting rules or making decisions related to federal elections.

According to NACo:

NACo joined with the National League of Cities, International Municipal Lawyers Association, International County/City Managers Association and U.S. Conference of Mayors to file an amicus brief warning that, if adopted, the ISLT could create an unworkable, bifurcated election system for federal elections (in which state legislatures could operate unchecked by state constitutions and state judicial review) and state elections (where those normal checks are in place.) The brief further argued that these implications would jeopardize localities’ ability to administer elections smoothly and efficiently.

Visit the NACo website for more information.