To the Congress of the United States:
I hereby transmit to the Congress my recommendations for reforms in our Nation's election system.
The Vice President and I have developed these proposals in order to meet our commitment to the American people to work toward an electoral process which is open to the participation of all our citizens, which meets high ethical standards, and which operates in an efficient and responsive manner. I know that you in the Congress share these goals, and I applaud your efforts which are already underway to achieve them.
My first proposal, and the one on which I am proposing a specific bill to the Congress, is designed to open up our system of voter registration.
The basis of our democratic system is the right of every eligible citizen to vote. In the 200 years of its history, this Nation has greatly expanded the opportunity to vote to wider and wider groups of citizens.
Despite this progress, we have in recent years witnessed a disturbing trend toward lower and lower levels of voting by our citizens. I am deeply concerned that our country ranks behind at least twenty other democracies in its level of voter participation.
Our country's disappointing record cannot be remedied by any one solution or any single piece of legislation. But, millions of Americans are prevented or discouraged from voting in every election by antiquated and overly restrictive voter registration laws. We can take one immediate step toward solving this serious problem by removing antiquated and unnecessary obstacles which prevent voters from participating in the electoral process.
I am proposing to remove the unnecessary and unfair barriers by creating a method of universal voter registration. Under the legislation I will propose to the Congress, citizens qualified to vote under state laws could go to their polling places on the day of a Federal election and register there after proving their eligibility. The states would 'be encouraged to adopt a similar system of registration for state and local elections.
Under this plan, state and local officials will continue to administer voter registration and elections, and will still register as many voters as possible prior to election day in the usual manner, in order to avoid congestion at the polls.
We would offer financial assistance to the states to employ additional registrars and to help pay the cost of registration by mail, traveling registrars, or any other pre-election day registration efforts the state might choose.
State and local officials would also have the option of using the money they receive under the plan to modernize what are often outmoded and poorly equipped systems of election administration. A new office within the Federal Election Commission would distribute the Federal funds and oversee the program.
I also propose that we enact very strong safeguards to protect the integrity of the election process. Willful fraud in registering to vote should bear the strong criminal penalties of five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine already found in the Voting Rights Act. Any person who takes part in a scheme to falsely identify or register voters should be similarly punished, and multiple convictions should lead to even stiffer penalties. The government should seek injunctive relief in Federal court to stop any patterns of fraudulent activity which might arise.
States should be allowed to require all persons registering at the polls to prove their identity and place of residence by approved forms of identification. All registrants should he informed of the state's qualifications for voting and be required to sign a statement, under oath and criminal penalty, that they meet those qualifications.
While these safeguards are important and necessary, I am optimistic that they will rarely be tested and the record suggests that they will rarely be needed.
This system of election-day registration is already employed in a number of states, and the record shows that it has usually increased voter participation without increasing voter fraud. Four out of five states with the highest voter turnout rates in the 1976 election permitted citizens to register and vote on election day.
My second recommendation deals with the way in which we pay the costs of Congressional campaigns.
In 1974, Congress took the historic step of establishing a system of public financing for Presidential primary and general elections. I urge the Congress to extend this important reform to campaigns for both the House and the Senate.
The record of the first publicly financed Presidential campaign has demonstrated that public financing is workable and widely accepted by the American people. Public financing of candidates not only minimizes even the appearance of obligation to special interest contributors, but also provides an opportunity for qualified persons who lack funds to seek public office. It would be a tragic irony if the 1974 law, which reduced the pressure special interests could place on Presidential candidates, increased the pressures on candidates for Congress as the large contributors look for new means of gaining influence with their political funds.
The method we select should allow each American the option of deciding whether to participate in public funding. The check-off provision on the income tax form accomplishes this goal for Presidential campaign financing. The checkoff method should also be used to raise the funds necessary to support Congressional candidates.
Congress is best suited to decide on an exact formula for financing campaigns. However, I believe there are several features which should be part of any plan:
First, the plan should require that candidates demonstrate substantial public support before they get public funds to help finance their campaigns. This would guard against frivolous candidates depleting the limited public funds available. The matching formula in the Presidential primaries provided a successful link between total public funds received and a candidate's ability to demonstrate citizen support through small private donations.
Second, the limit on overall expenditures should not be excessively low so as to prevent an adequate presentation of candidates and their platforms to the people.
Third, we should ensure that candidates who accept public financing are not placed at a serious disadvantage in competing with opponents who have extraordinarily abundant private funds. Under 'the recent Supreme Court ruling, if a candidate refuses to accept public financing, then no limitation can be imposed on the amount of personal or other private funds which may be spent on the campaign. But if a less wealthy opponent does accept public financing, stricter spending limits would be imposed on him than on his opponent. I hope Congress will address this problem.
Fourth, I favor the broadest possible application of public financing. It should apply to primaries as well as general elections. I hope the Congress will act soon to pass legislation so that public financing can be available for the 1978 Congressional campaigns. It is important to begin now with public financing for general elections, even if a plan for primaries cannot be adopted this year.
Strengthening the Federal Election Campaign Act
While public financing of the last Presidential election was highly successful, my third suggestion is for certain modifications which our experience has shown could make the system work even better.
We noticed, for example, that there was less activity than in the past at the state and local level during the general election campaign. Opportunities should be available for more grass-roots participation in Presidential races. This could be accomplished by allowing Presidential candidates to designate one committee in each state to raise and spend a limited amount of money for campaign activities within the state. A reasonable limit for this activity might be 2¢ per eligible voter. Such committees could be allowed to delegate spending authority to local committees, but they should still be responsible for reporting contributions and expenditures. Also, when Congressional candidates mention in their advertising the Presidential nominee of their party, the expenditure should not have to be reported by the Presidential candidate.
Another useful change would be to grant Presidential candidates an additional amount to cover the great costs of complying with election laws--for example, filing the many necessary financial reports. We should prohibit the private raising of funds for this purpose.
We could also simplify the reporting of contributions and expenditures by directing the Federal Election Commission to establish common reporting and accounting systems to be used by all candidates.
Finally, we must clarify the law as it applies to the financial aspects of the delegate selection process. Contributions to delegates, or candidates for delegate, should be charged against a Presidential candidate only when such delegates are pledged to the specific candidate. Also, a delegate's expenses for attending a conventions should not be considered as contributions or expenditures for the candidate he or she supports.
Direct Popular Election of the President
My fourth recommendation is that the Congress adopt a Constitutional amendment to provide for direct popular election of the President.
Such an amendment, which would abolish the Electoral College, will ensure that the candidate chosen by the voters actually becomes President. Under the Electoral College, it is always possible that the winner of the popular vote will not be elected. This has already happened in three elections, 1824, 1876, and 1888. In the last election, the result could have been changed by a small shift of votes in Ohio and Hawaii, despite a popular vote difference of 1.7 million.
I 'do not recommend a Constitutional amendment lightly. I think the amendment process must be reserved for an issue of overriding governmental significance. But the method by which we elect our President is such an issue.
I will not be proposing a specific direct election amendment. I prefer to allow the Congress to proceed with its work without the interruption of a new proposal.
Political Rights of Federal Employees
My fifth and final recommendation concerns the political fights of federal employees.
Over 2.8 million federal employees, including postal workers and workers for the District of Columbia, are now denied a full opportunity to participate in the electoral process. Unlike other Americans, they cannot run as a partisan candidate for any public office, cannot hold party office, and cannot even do volunteer work in a partisan political campaign.
I favor revising the Hatch Act to free those federal employees not in sensitive positions from these restrictions. There should be exceptions for those employees who must retain both the appearance and the substance of impartiality. For employees in such sensitive positions who are not subject to Senate confirmation, restrictions on political activity are necessary. Acting on standards prescribed by Congress, the Civil Service Commission should determine which positions should be treated as sensitive in all relevant government agencies.
Under such a Hatch Act revision, the vast majority of federal employees would be able to participate in federal, state and local elections and other political functions. But, federal employees have a special obligation not to abuse their public service responsibility. I favor strong penalties for any federal employee who attempts to influence or coerce another federal employee into political activity, or who engages in political activity while on the job. I also favor maximum reliance on a strong Civil Service Commission to vigorously prosecute employees who violate regulations against this kind of behavior.
The White House,
March 22, 1977.