Democratizing American Voting

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is under pressure to end the filibuster

Democrats in Congress have a choice: Use their House and Senate majorities to advance voting rights and enhance democracy or surrender in the face of a Republican minority willing to employ legislative tools to maintain its power. Democratic constituencies demand the former, which requires Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster.

The new Biden administration has much on its plate: Controlling the pandemic, bolstering a shaky economy, reforming a broken immigration system, combatting climate change, and much more. But, just as important for the long-term health of American democracy is swift passage of two bills to reform American voting. Both bills will pass the House, but Senate Republicans are certain to filibuster at least one of them.

One bill is a revised Voting Rights Act to protect minority voting rights. The VRA, as it is known, is needed to fix the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision invalidating the central pillar of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: A requirement that states and localities with a history of voting discrimination receive approval from the Justice Department before enacting changes in election laws that might restrict minority access to the ballot. 

Democratic-backed electoral reforms would make absentee voting easier

The other measure — H.R. 1 and its Senate version, S.1 — is far-reaching. It requires every state to provide online, automatic, and same-day voter registration; ensure at least 15 days of early voting; grant all voters access to no-excuse absentee ballots that are postage free; position drop boxes where ballots can be returned; end gerrymandering by insisting that every state set up independent bodies to draw congressional districts; establish a public financing system for congressional elections; enact safeguards against foreign entities interfering in American elections; and require disclosure of dark money in campaign spending to end the appalling consequences of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

The House is expected to pass H.R. 1 by early March. It faces a certain filibuster in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has attacked the reform package as a ”power grab” and a “radical, half-baked socialist proposal.” McConnell has failed to explain how a measure to advance democracy by ensuring “one person, one vote” is socialist, but logic has never stood in the way of a good slur. The Kentuckian and many of his Republican colleagues in the upper chamber may be reluctant to filibuster the VRA for fear that Democrats would label them racists in the mold of old-time southern segregationist senators who used the filibuster to forestall civil rights legislation in the middle of the last century. But, no one doubts Republicans’ desire to prevent the enactment of the comprehensive extension of democratic reforms.

Stacey Abrams

For Democrats, the stakes are high for two reasons. First, passage of these laws guarantees younger and more diverse voters will have access to the ballot. Democrats in a number of battleground states — Stacey Abrams in Georgia most famously, but not exclusively — have labored heroically to register new voters, and Democrats have promised in recent years to fight for voting reform. Progressives are exerting pressure on congressional Democrats to end the filibuster and pass the measures. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of H.R. 1, said, “Our grass roots will not accept the notion that we had good intentions, but we just failed.” Second, revived Republican attempts to push new state laws restricting the vote, based on Donald Trump’s discredited claims of election fraud last November, give renewed urgency to enact national standards to prevent GOP machinations in the states. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, state legislators have filed 106 bills to make it more difficult to cast a ballot.

A sampling of these laws suggests how far Republicans are prepared to go to prevent fellow Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote. In three states, bills would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting. Measures in Arizona and New Jersey would allow election officials to remove voters from registration lists. Several states are considering more burdensome signature matching requirements and increasing poll-watcher access. Bills in 10 states would impose more stringent voter ID requirements, including eliminating the use of student IDs. Other measures make voter registration more difficult. The number of ways in which Republican state legislatures can restrict voting appear virtually limitless.

Republicans are not shy in confessing their goals. Brian Robinson, a Republican political consultant in Atlanta, said, “The overall purpose of these reforms is to restore faith in our election systems…. That’s not to say that it was a giant failure; that’s to say that faith has been diminished.” In other words, Robinson would prevent some people — mostly minorities — from voting so that the faith of other people — mostly White — can be restored in an election system that works well but has been undermined by the lies of Republicans. Got that?

Many Republicans recognize reality: The party appeals to a segment of the population that rapidly is becoming a minority of the voting population. In addition, the GOP promotes an agenda that amounts to socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor. The appeal of such a program is problematic, and it will become even more precarious if President Joe Biden enacts a substantial chunk of his agenda. If he succeeds, he stands a good chance of winning back many working-class Trump voters, further weakening the Republican party.

The only way Republicans can win national elections in such an environment is to maximize the ability of their supporters to vote and minimize the likelihood that their opponents cast ballots. As Alice O’Lenick, an election official in Georgia, “[Republicans] don’t have to change all of [the laws], but they have got to change the major parts of them so we at least have a shot at winning.”

Instead of developing a party program to appeal to a wide spectrum of the electorate, Republicans would rather use their power in state legislatures to enact legislation limiting voting rights. Democrats must block the Republicans’ nefarious ploy by eliminating the filibuster and passing comprehensive national voting standards. The health of American democracy depends on it.

Posted February 2, 2021

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