Article I, Section 4, Clauses 1-2
1: 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.
2: The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December,5 unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.
Article I, Section 4, cl. 1, delegates to the state legislatures the authority to determine the time, place and manner of electing Senators and Representatives. However, with one qualification that has been rendered effectively moot by the 17th Amendment, Congress may supersede state law.
This is one of few clauses in the Constitution that affirmatively require the exercise of authority by the states. It raises interesting questions about the applicability of the traditional “default” view that all powers not affirmatively delegated to Congress or explicitly denied to the states, are reserved to the states or the people, as reflected in the 10th Amendment. Does this explicit provision “create” power for the states to act? Or, does the clause require the states to exercise a power they already have, but that they could ignore in the absence of this command?
Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, and Justice Thomas, writing for four dissenters, debated that issue in a fascinating case, U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, in 1995. Term Limits addressed the constitutionality of an Arkansas state constitutional amendment that imposed term limits on its Senators and Representatives. Technically, the opinion involved the interpretation of the “qualifications” clause of Article I, Section 2, clause 2, whether term limits constituted an unconstitutional addition to the listed qualifications. But both sides (especially Justice Thomas) explored the applicability of Article I, Section 4, and the question of state power to act when the Constitution is silent.
The majority held that the states have no powers to act in matters that spring exclusively out of the existence of the national government created by the Constitution, unless the Constitution itself delegates that power to the states. Justice Stevens quoted the brilliant early-19th century nationalist Justice Joseph Story that, “No state can say, that it has reserved, what it never possessed.” He also noted that Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist 59, had warned of the danger to the Union’s existence if the states had the exclusive power to regulate Congressional elections.
In Stevens’s view, the Constitution created the national government ex nihilo, and the states had reserved powers only in those areas previously within their legislative discretion. Hence, since there was no affirmative grant to states to add qualifications for federal representatives, such power did not exist. Stevens viewed Article I, Section 4, as evidence for this proposition, as it (in his view) delegated authority to the states to act that, in the clause’s absence, would not have existed, while giving Congress ultimate control.
Stevens’s position makes it unclear why the clause is needed at all. Presumably, if the states do not have the inherent power to control the manner of election of the national legislature, but such power rests instead in the federal government, Congress already has ultimate control over the manner of election. Also, if this was delegation to the states, there is no need to declare what the states “must” do, and what Congress “may” do.
Justice Thomas found Stevens’s view to be exactly backwards. Since the states once had all powers, including the power to create whatever Union they wanted, or none at all, they also retained whatever authority they had not surrendered or that was not denied them in regards to the composition of the national government. Since the Constitution does not deny the states the power to add (but not subtract) from the listed qualifications, term limits are constitutional. Moreover, Article I, Section 4, does not detract from the general position that the states have all reserved powers. Thomas saw this provision not as a delegation to the states from the people, created by the Constitution. Rather, this is an imposition on the states of a duty to act, where otherwise none would exist.
Thomas pointed out that, without such a clause, the states could still determine the time, place, and manner of electing members of the national legislature. But they also might refuse to elect members of Congress, to cripple the federal government just as Hamilton warned. This clause, then, imposed a duty on the states (“must”) to exercise that power, subject to the authorization to Congress (“may”) to override the states’ choices. As a corollary, if the clause did not exist, Congress would have no power to act.
Until 1842, Congress left regulation of such elections to the states. States did not adhere to a single standard of electing Representatives (Senators were still elected by state legislatures). Often, at least some Congressmen were elected at-large. In that year, Congress began to require that single-member districts be used. By 1911, federal law mandated that such districts be “composed of a compact and contiguous territory and containing as nearly as practicable an equal number of inhabitants.”
When a later law eliminated that last requirement, substantial malapportionment occurred. Eventually, the Supreme Court waded into this “political thicket,” using another related provision, Article I, Section 2, to strike down apportionment that resulted in districts of disproportionate populations. A nearly absolute “one man-one vote” equality emerged to assure that, as nearly as practicable, “one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.”
Additional questions raised by this clause are whether Congress could regulate primaries that, after all, are an integral part of the election process (based on Supreme Court opinions, today it probably could) or financing of Congressional elections (yes, within the broad contours of the First Amendment). Congress can prescribe the mechanics of voting, as well.
State laws are still important. For example, states still control the requirements for recounts, as a number of candidates in various close races in November, 2010, discovered. As well, states have different rules (and interpretations by state courts) for replacing candidates who drop out shortly before the election. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was permitted to replace corruption-plagued Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli on the ballot when the latter withdrew a month before the election. On the other hand, Texas Republicans were not permitted to replace Tom DeLay’s name on the ballot when he withdrew five months before the election.
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/ .