democratic (small d) Power Grab

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the emperor with no clothes from Kentucky, calls the sweeping election reform bill Democrats back a “partisan power grab.”

Well, yes, guilty as charged! Democrats, indeed, will benefit from a federal election law that ends gerrymandering, prevents voter suppression, overturns state laws that permit voter nullification, makes election day a federal holiday, and limits the corrupting power of big money in politics. Democrats (with a big D) will benefit from democracy (with a small d). Free and fair elections, which the voting reform bill insures, means more people will vote, and more people voting is a good thing for Democrats.

So, yes, Republicans are right, election reform is a Democratic power grab. It is also a democratic power grab. And, it is the right thing to do.

It is, of course, always easy to be cynical about politics and politicians. But, sometimes, shocking as it may seem, self-interest and doing the right thing align. It happens!

As the advocacy group Public Citizen tweeted in response to McConnell, “This is a bill that stops voter suppression and ends gerrymandering. How depraved do you have to be to insist that more people voting is somehow a power grab? What sort of anti-democratic garbage is that.” Public Citizen, in a separate tweet, also noted, “Mitch McConnell is absolutely terrified of a bill that simply makes it easier for people to vote. This tells you all you need to know.”

As I have pointed out before, Republicans have understood, for decades, that more people voting is bad for Republican electoral chances. As early as 1980, Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, said, “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” For more than a decade, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-funded organization, has written draft legislation for Republican state legislators to introduce that impedes voters at every step in the electoral process. And, former President Donald Trump said in March 2020, that if the Democratic election reform bill passes, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Trump may well be right. After all, since 1992 the Republican candidate for president has won the popular vote only once — George W. Bush in 2004. Democrats routinely outpoll Republicans in cumulative votes for members of the House and Senate, but the distribution of seats in both chambers rarely reflects the vote totals. Republican representation in the House benefits from gerrymandering, which allows state legislatures to draw congressional district lines to the benefit of their party. Both parties do this, of course, but in recent decades, gerrymandering has helped Republicans more than Democrats. 

Republicans benefit from institutional protections that cannot easily be changed, if at all. The Electoral College elevated George W. Bush in 2000 (with help from the Supreme Court) and Donald Trump in 2016 to the presidency even though both candidates lost the popular vote. Republicans have disproportionate power in the Senate because of the constitutional guarantee that gives each state two senators, insuring that small Red states such as Wyoming are equal in the Senate to large Blue states such as California.

But, those constitutional protections do not satisfy today’s Republican Party. Its leaders understand that even the built-in advantages in the Electoral College and the Senate cannot guarantee Republican dominance. Thus, Republican state legislators for decades, and most assiduously since the 2020 election, have been passing legislation to suppress the vote and give Republican state officials the power to overturn election results. Yes, in other words, to give Republican state officials the power to take away citizens’ votes. 

The problem Republicans have is that the modern version of the party is beholden to special interests and to the very wealthiest of Americans. The concerns of the groups and individuals Republicans represent do not align with those of most Americans, so to win elections, Republicans hide their indebtedness to special interests like the fossil fuel industry by claiming, for example, their opposition to new energy sources is rooted in economic growth. In a more sinister vein, Republicans often appeal to the baser instincts of the electorate by railing against immigration and stoking White fears about the growing electoral power of people of color. 

That kind of political flimflam only goes so far, so Republicans have to back it up with measures to limit the vote to people receptive to their messages. Republicans are right: The more people who can vote, the worse it is for the party. And, so at the state level, Republicans pass legislation to limit the vote and, at the federal level, Republicans filibuster every attempt by Democrats to enact legislation to guarantee American elections are free, fair, and democratic. 

So, yes, election reform is a Democratic power grab. It advances democracy, and it is a democratic (small d) power grab. It is also the right thing to do.

Posted October 26, 2021