Lloyd Omdahl: COVID-19, election stretch federalism

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Lloyd Omdahl

When the U.S. Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, the delegates came thinking their job was to amendment the Articles of Confederation. When they began to think about the problems with the Articles, they disregarded the convention call and set about building a stronger national government.

Actually, none of the delegates had a neat master plan. Pragmatists took charge and hammered out compromise after compromise, with the main contenders being delegates favoring states’ rights versus delegates who saw the need for a stronger central government.

A federal system may have been suitable for the economy and society of the 1700s when businesses, farms, and other enterprises were local. But as America became populated and prosperous, state boundaries lost their significance. In fact, state boundaries hindered expansion.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, legislation and court decisions responded to the need for an interstate perspective by reapplying old principles to new circumstances.

In many ways, our economy and society have outgrown the fragmentation of 50 states in traditional federalism. Since we have become a nation in the truest sense, we need to ask whether or not federalism is obsolete in more ways than we are willing to admit.


Over the past few months, federalism demonstrated its incompetence in dealing with COVID-19 and with elections, both of which have resulted in major social upheaval.

First, COVID-19 is not a city problem, a county problem or a state problem. It is a national problem, but we have been attacking it with a federal system that calls for decentralization of a response.

Out of respect for federalism, the president passed the job to the states, many of whom passed it down to other fragments of local government. We had 50 responses (or non-responses) to a challenge that required a unified response. Resources were wasted; jurisdictional fights developed; states punished their neighbors; and, worst of all, people died. A lot of people died.

Even if we centralized management today of the government response to COVID-19, it would be too late to correct the grievous consequences of decentralization.

Federalism was a failure in the fight against the pandemic. Of course, the humans involved could have ameliorated the problem of fragmentation but instead used it to pass the buck around. And the buck was passed.

Federalism was also a failure in administering the polls in the recent election. With 50 states making and remaking election rules, millions of voters got lost in the shuffle and democracy was curtailed in the process. The principle of “one person, one vote” was shattered by “one person, no vote” in many jurisdictions.

Of course, the atrocities in elections run deep in American history. With federalism, states have been allowed to discriminate against their citizens in a variety of ways, from literacy tests, to residential requirements, to limited access to voting sites, etc., etc.

If this is a democracy, citizens ought to be guaranteed through nationally uniform standards that every “one person will get one vote.” We have denigrated the word “democracy” by our conduct in the recent election fight.


Before we howl about states’ rights, let us not forget that Congress passed legislation granting the right to vote to 18-year-olds while most states were clinging to 21-year-old voting. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had overstepped its authority so Congress quickly proposed the 26th Amendment which was quickly passed by three-fourths of the states to avoid confusion at the polls with one set up for federal elections and a separate set up for state elections.

There are ways in which Congress could convince states to conform to national standards. They should be called “Laws to Bail Out Democracy.”

Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.

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