In an epic showdown, Democrats are trying to protect democracy from Republican efforts to suppress the vote. While Republicans are working feverishly to undermine voting rights in state legislatures across the country, Democrats are advancing electoral reforms at the federal level. The calls for electoral reforms grew louder in the wake of the Republican coup attempt, and the former president’s call for an insurrection.
The GOP has launched what has been described as the broadest assault on voting rights since the Jim Crow era. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, lawmakers in 43 states have crafted more than 253 bills that seek to restrict voting access. “More voting restrictions have been enacted over the last decade than at any point since the end of Jim Crow,” Bruce V. Spiva, a lawyer representing the Democratic National Committee, recently told the Supreme Court. “The last three months have seen an even greater uptick in proposed voting restrictions, many aimed squarely at the minority groups whose participation Congress intended to protect.”
Republicans oppose electoral reforms and they have doubled down on disinformation including the Big Lie that Trump won the election in 2020. They justify their voter suppression efforts by promoting baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and rigged elections. These pretexts are not new, they also used the voter rigging fallacy in the 2016 election. What is new is just how brazen they have become. “Republican politicians across the country aren’t even pretending anymore that voter fraud justifies these and other ballot restrictions,” Kimberly Wehle wrote in a Bulwark article.
GOP’s craven electoral strategy
The GOP’s voter suppression efforts include making voter registration complex, requiring voter IDs, limiting early voting, closing poll locations in poor areas, restricting access to mail-in ballots, and purging registered voters. They also support a form of voter suppression known as gerrymandering (aka redistricting) that allows the ruling party to redraw the electoral map in their favor. After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the GOP made redistricting a major focus of their election strategy in the 2010 midterms. In the wake of the election of Joe Biden 2020, redistricting has become the focus of Republican-controlled state capitols across the country.
Leading up to the 2018 midterms Republicans embarked on a systemic campaign of voter suppression. Republicans have relied on voter suppression tactics for decades but these efforts have become far more blatant as the party comes to terms with the realization that it is unlikely to take back the presidency or gain control of either legislative chamber in a free and fair election. So in a craven bid to secure power they are doubling down on disinformation and voter suppression.
The Republican presidential candidate lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections. These numbers do not bode well for the grand old party. In 2020 the Republican incumbent lost the national election by more than 7 million votes. Biden secured 74 more electoral college votes (Biden 306 / Trump 232) despite an electoral college system that favors the GOP. There are now many more registered Democrats than Republicans and changing demographics will soon make young voters and minorities the majority of the voting-age public.
Senator Lindsey Graham succinctly explained why his party needs to undermine voting rights when he said, “if Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”
The urgency of electoral reforms came into focus due to the effort of the former president to limit mail-in ballots by slowing down US Postal Services (USPS). As documented by the Washington Post, Trump freely acknowledged that he defunded the USPS to suppress the vote. In response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Trump is “afraid of the American people. He’s been afraid for a while. He knows that on the legit, it’d be hard for him to win. So he wants to put obstacles of participation.”
The former president’s conduct is a by-product of the Republican party’s decades-long history of disinformation. They continue to support him to this day so the incessant lies, and disinformation that fueled the most destructive presidency in the history of the republic is a well-earned part of the GOP’s legacy. Simply put, Trump’s corruption is the logical extension of the rampant corruption in the GOP.
Republicans are responsible for Trump’s dystopian presidency. His rise to power was born out of years of treachery in which the GOP employed an arsenal of tactics to undermine participatory democracy. They deliberately disenfranchised voters with the ruse of blaming both sides and they divided the nation by weaponizing hate for political gain. The situation went from bad to worse when Republican lawmakers voted to overturn free and fair election results on January 6, 2020.
The United States is facing “an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country,” President Joe Biden’s Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.
The GOP has exposed its depravity and dispensed with all pretense of legitimacy. They are desperate in the face of the realization that they cannot win free and fair elections. That is why they are doubling down on their long-standing tradition of curbing access to the polls. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters, “Republican state legislators, concerned about their losses, either in their own states or in the country, are again upping their efforts to make it more difficult for people to vote.”
Their voter suppression efforts have become increasingly shameless. As Michael Carvin, argued in a Supreme Court Arizona voting rights case, Republicans know that free and fair elections put them at a “competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats” Carvin said adding, “It’s the difference between winning an election . . . and losing.” In other words, they are conceding the fact that allowing more Americans to vote makes it hard for Republicans to win.
New voter suppression laws are popping up in Republican-controlled states across the country. New Hampshire’s legislature has put forward 10, Missouri and Florida’s Republican Sen. Rick Scott is one example of several states that have proposed legislation to ban automatic voter registration for federal elections.
However, the three key states that are championing restrictive voter laws are Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. It is no small coincidence that these are the three states that were key to the former president’s electoral defeat in 2020. In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled legislature has proposed 14 new restrictions. In Georgia – a state that gave Democrats control of the Senate for the first time in decades – there are 11 voter suppression measures being considered. Georgia’s Senate is seeking to end the state’s automatic voter registration system and revoke the right to cast an absentee ballot. Georgia’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives has already passed new voter ID requirements for mail ballots, restricted ballot drop boxes, and imposed limits on early voting on Sundays.
The GOP’s state-level voter suppression tactics are designed to deny voting access to those least likely to vote Republican. This includes young people, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and other minority groups. Republican voters tend to be older white people concerned about their perceived loss of privilege, Republicans have reason to fear the changing demographics in the nation. Younger people of color are replacing predominantly white baby boomers as the dominant voting bloc.
Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters were clearly evident in post-election lawsuits that overwhelmingly targeted Black communities. In the absence of a real policy agenda, they are doubling down on voter suppression as the core of their election strategy. In the face of efforts to restrict access to the polls rather than compete for votes, Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center for Justice, said, “This is a time where we are in desperate need of the Voting Rights Act.”
Democrat’s support for voting rights
While Democrats are seeking to resurrect the Voting Rights Act (VRA) Republicans are trying to kill what remains of the VRA. Democrats have been fighting to expand access to the polls through early voting, vote-by-mail, and other measures. Now they are proposing changes that will make voting easier for young people and people of color. There is increased support for electoral reforms in the wake of the Big Lie, the coup attempt, and the insurrection. However, calls to reform America’s democracy emerged in 2016. and gained steam after the midterm elections in 2018.
Without any Republican support, the House recently passed H.R. 1, a sweeping government and elections reform bill. In addition to the passage of the landmark $1.9 trillion COVID relief stimulus bill in the Senate, the House also passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, in memory of the unarmed Black man killed by police last summer. The act bans chokeholds and overhauls qualified immunity protections for law enforcement.
H.R. 1, also called the “For the People Act.” makes it easier for people to vote by requiring every state to create systems for automatic, same-day, and online voter registration. It would expand early and absentee voting, and require the use of paper ballots and auditing to protect the integrity of elections, among other measures. This is the second time the House has approved HR 1. The first time the bill was passed by the House was in 2019, but it was prevented from moving forward by the Republican-controlled Senate.
HR 1 would also prevent state legislatures from restricting voting and effectively end redistricting by replacing partisan gerrymandering with independent redistricting commissions. Jacob Hacker, a Yale University political scientist recently estimated that HR 1 could lead to as many as 50 million more registered voters.
In addition to making it safer and easier to vote, HR 1 will also protect against foreign interference in elections. It includes provisions that would apply ethics codes to Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court. It also addresses conflicts of interest and prevents lawmakers from sitting on corporate boards. The bill even addresses the Citizens United ruling which allows unlimited financial influence over elections.
Democrats describe the bill as anti-corruption legislation that would expand voting access and improve accountability and transparency in Washington. “This is something that is enormously popular among the American people. The American people want to reduce the role of big, dark, special interest money in politics, which is preventing so many good things from happening. The people want to see an end to voter suppression,” Pelosi said. Republicans have criticized the bill for limiting political speech calling it “overreach” and a “federal power grab”. They are stoking fears that it would take powers away from states and increase fraud.
In the wake of recent events, Democrats realized the need for immediate action. “I don’t think the urgency has ever been greater,” Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland told CNN. “When you look at what Republicans are doing across the country in statehouses to roll back access to the ballot box, we need to do what we can to establish baseline standards and best practices that allow people to register and vote in America without it being an obstacle course for them.”
HR 1 would “make the electorate look more like the population,” says Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America. “The goal of a democracy should be that the people who are participating in it look a lot like the people who live in it. Right now, the electorate is older, whiter, and wealthier than the population writ large. And these rights that wrong,” Wessel said.
If H.R. 1 passes, it must also survive inevitable Supreme Court challenges. The Constitution gives states the ability to choose the time, manner, and place of their elections, but gives Congress the power to regulate them. The case from Arizona that is currently before the Supreme Court will have major implications for voter suppression laws across the country.
The Arizona laws that are being challenged restrict who can deliver an absentee ballot on behalf of a voter and limit where voters can cast ballots. The 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court is expected to reject the DNC’s challenge and uphold Arizona’s curbs on voting access. This adds urgency to the Democrat’s electoral reform efforts.
What is at stake is both Section 5 and key parts of Section 2 in the VRA. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. It specifically struck down Section 5 or what is known as preclearance, which makes it difficult for states to impose obstacles to voting. Justice Roberts, who has a history of putting state authority above voting rights, wrote the 5-4 majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder. This effectively killed Section 5 thereby allowing states with a history of discrimination to ignore the need to secure permission for voting laws from the federal government. The move led to a wave of new voter suppression laws in Republican-controlled states across the country.
The gutting of Section 5 of the VRA is one of the key reasons why Democrats are advancing another electoral reform bill known as HR 4 or the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, It would restore and update Section 5, and provide protections against discriminatory voter ID laws as well as other important reforms. The bill was renamed for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights leader who fought voter suppression.
Section 2 of the VRA, applies nationwide and outlaws the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color. As reported by Mother Jones, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch have said that Section 2 does not prohibit racial gerrymandering. In the run-up to the 2020 election, Justices Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh suggested voting rules passed by state legislatures cannot be reversed by federal courts. Influential Republicans Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and Tom Cotton are among the 11 Republican senators that are on record saying they would also like the courts to strike down Section 2.
Making every vote matter
While the Supreme Court is unlikely to save America’s democracy, legislation can. If elections are free and fair Democrats are expected to increase their hold on power. Of the 34 Senate seats up next year, Republicans are defending 20 while the Democrats are defending 14. However, if Republican voter suppression efforts succeed they will make it easier for them to flout the popular will and take control of both the Senate and House in 2022 and the White House in 2024.
The passage of HR 1 in the Senate is crucial to protecting democracy. However, despite the easy passage of H.R.1 in the House, it will not pass as easily in the Senate. Democrats have a 50-seat majority in the Senate, but most Senate legislation requires 60 votes to advance. Election reform bills are unlikely to get any support from obstructionist Republicans so Democrats in the Senate will have to end the filibuster if they want to save democracy.
“We have to take advantage of this moment, and I think there will be an appreciation of that in the United States Senate. We’ll see if it can be done on a bipartisan basis. If not, then I think it makes sense to step back and reevaluate the filibuster and whether that makes sense and figure out if there’s another path forward.” Congressman John Sarbanes told CNN.
As Stacy Abrams said the fight for voting rights is synonymous with efforts to defend democracy. “We’re fighting to protect our democracy from domestic enemies,” Abrams said. It is not only progressives who are concerned, as conservative commentator Bill Kristol explained, “we are in a fight for the survival of democracy itself.”
There is nothing democratic about allowing a minority of older, White people to control the majority. In the wake of the Big Lie, the coup, and the insurrection we should not underestimate the GOP’s malfeasance.
The Biden administration appears to understand the urgent need for election reforms. On March 7. the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Biden signed an executive order that directs the heads of federal agencies to submit proposals to expand voter access while assisting states in voter registration. A White House official said the EO will “leverage the resources of the federal government to expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote and to learn about and participate in the electoral process.” The order also instructs the General Services Administration to modernize the federal government’s Vote.gov portal. The White House called the EO, “an initial step in this Administration’s efforts to protect the right to vote and ensure all eligible citizens can freely participate in the electoral process.”
Democrats are trying to protect voting rights through a national baseline that would protect voters’ rights across the country and make eligible voters more representative of the nation. “We are talking about Americans’ constitutional rights, and I believe that all Americans should have access to exercising those rights,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. “If you happen to be a person of color voting in Alabama you should have the same access as in Colorado. It’s not about the state: It’s about the voter. Your ability to vote shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code, your state, the amount of money in your bank account, the color of your skin, or your gender or anything else.”
Democrats are not overreaching, they are defending a long and proud tradition of voter rights advocacy against a desperate anti-democratic bid to subvert electoral access and further weaken America’s representative democracy.