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The Time to Secure Voting Rights Is Now or Never
If you’d thought that defeating Donald Trump’s re-election campaign would save American democracy, well… it turns out that this particular vampire hasn’t been sufficiently staked yet.
Four months into Joe Biden’s presidency, Trump is still waging war on the 2020 election results—because he’s been banned from Twitter and Facebook, he’s been sending unhinged press releases that still read like his fever-tweets of yore.
Trump’s tirades, and the actions of his enablers in Congress and state legislatures, are setting the stage for similar battles after the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election. What used to be a cold war against democracy has become a conflagration spreading across the U.S.
As of May 14, the Brennan Center has counted nearly 400 voter suppression bills that have been introduced in 48 statehouses across the country, many of which are getting passed.
Some of the more draconian bills are being enacted in states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Arizona—key battleground states that can swing presidential elections. Georgia drew attention for making it a crime to give water or food to people standing in line to vote, for example.
But those performatively cruel provisions are more the exception. The rule is that many bills advancing through state legislatures contain remarkably similar language, aimed at curtailing absentee and early voting, stopping the proactive mailing of absentee ballot applications, reducing the availability and number of ballot drop boxes, empowering partisan poll watchers, enacting onerous ID requirements, and making voter purges easier.
The reason these bills are similar is that they’re being pushed and even written by the same people. Mother Jones recently published the leaked video of Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action for America, a sister organization of the conservative Heritage Foundation, boasting how the group has crafted model legislation curtailing voting rights in Georgia and is now pushing the same in many other states. In some cases, Anderson said, Heritage Action for America was writing the actual legislation, working with other right-wing groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, Tea Party Patriots, and FreedomWorks to coordinate their messaging.
We are in a two-year period in which voting rights need to be secured, or it’s quite likely they never will be.
“Strengthening election security” has long been a code for “prevent Black people from voting,” and Trumpified Republicans are no longer trying to hide their racism. The massive amount of money and influence pushing these changes through legislatures also is nothing new. But the current battle taps into the worst of both worlds: post-Citizens United corporate dark money meets high-tech microtargeting of the electorate, grafted onto pre-Voting Rights Act-style voter suppression. Heritage Action for America alone is spending $24 million over two years to advance these initiatives in eight battleground states.
That money can’t be matched on the progressive side.
The amount is “exponentially larger than most voting organizations have to be able to deal with the current onslaught,” Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org, told me recently. “There isn’t a $25 million response that any organization can match.”
Vote.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter information and registration organization that relies heavily on small donations. Hailey said that while the group had a record fundraising year in 2020, pulling in about $18 million in donations, a good portion of those funds went toward voter outreach in all 50 states. That outreach includes registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts, and now in 2021, pushing back against a slew of bills designed to strip voting rights from a large, mostly non-White part of the electorate.
The obvious solution to this push by well-funded conservative groups is federal legislation. The For the People Act would help more Americans retain their voting rights, while the companion John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore and strengthen the federal oversight provisions stripped out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder.
The Brennan Center has advocated the passage of both bills. The For the People Act would implement many reforms, including nationwide automatic voter registration, a national guarantee of free and fair elections without voter suppression, an end to partisan gerrymandering, and overhauling federal ethics rules. The center writes, “Critically, the Act would thwart virtually every vote suppression bill currently pending in the states.”
“I think we’re at a key pivotal moment in time, and urgent moment in time for our democracy,” Hailey said. “There isn’t a clear path forward without securing the right to vote.”
Both bills have passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, only to have been stalled in the Senate by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both Democrats. Manchin, in particular, has steadfastly refused to consider changing the Senate rules to pass the bills (or any other piece of President Biden’s agenda) on a simple majority vote.
Manchin has said he’s still hoping for some kind of bipartisan solution, but it’s a pipe dream. There are not 10 Republican senators willing to overcome the inevitable GOP filibuster and guarantee the right to vote, just as there weren’t 10 Republican senators willing to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attempted coup, or enough to find Trump guilty of inciting the violence.
And while the nation waits to see whether Manchin will deign to save American democracy, the Republicans he keeps wanting to work with are going even deeper into anti-democratic territory.
The Arizona “audit” of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, has garnered attention for its completely obvious attempt to find “fraud” where it never existed, to bolster Trump’s Big Lie that he actually won the election.
To do this, Arizona Republican state senators hired an outside firm with no experience conducting election audits; are led by a Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist who also thinks the election was stolen; are using technology not tested by any federal laboratory nor certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission; use incomplete and shifting standards for training vote counters and tallying votes; and are likely to arrive at a preordained result that will cast doubt on an election that federal election officials said was “the most secure in U.S. history.”
That firm, Cyber Ninjas, is already running over budget and behind schedule, and because it’s not an official recount—the Republican senators are acting on their own—it will not change the result of the election. It will only sow doubt about its veracity, which is the whole point.
The “audit” is a complete circus and a sham run by amateurs, just like the Trump administration was. But as Trump often demonstrated, if you keep repeating the lie, sooner or later people will become exhausted trying to disprove it every time. And so it will stick.
And so, naturally, Republican officials in other states looked at Arizona and decided that they, too, wanted some of that Kool-Aid. A judge in Fulton County, Georgia (home to Atlanta), has ruled that “local voters” can inspect all 147,000 mailed-in ballots from the election. This is in response to a civil lawsuit alleging that election officials accepted thousands of counterfeit ballots, despite Georgia officials conducting three audits of the tally last year, none of which found any evidence of widespread fraud.
Even Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused Trump’s demands that he “find” 11,000 votes for Trump to swing the state, is welcoming this particular audit, telling The Washington Post that “Fulton County has a long-standing history of election mismanagement that has understandably weakened voters’ faith in its system.”
Taken together, the continued pushing of the Big Lie, recount mania, and the inevitable gerrymandering to come as a result of the recently completed census (the Supreme Court also ruled in 2019 that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional), all means that 2022 is looking more and more like a very steep hill to climb to save democracy.
“I think we’re at a key pivotal moment in time, and urgent moment in time for our democracy,” Hailey told me. “There isn’t a clear path forward without securing the right to vote. What you’re getting into then is a more authoritarian form of government, with just a sheen of democracy.”
We’ve seen that scenario play out in other countries retreating from democracy, such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, or Turkey. In those countries, elections may be nominally free but are never fair, the free press suffocates under onerous regulation and is drowned out by official channels, and judiciaries are driven by ideology instead of impartial enforcement of laws. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said the quiet part out loud in 2014 when he stated Hungary was building an “illiberal state.”
Even in the U.S., we’re seeing state-level Republicans trying to cripple courts’ ability to enforce voting laws, and moving to strip Democratic governors of power. In 2020, those attacks on governors’ power were largely centered around mask mandates, but GOP legislatures also took aim in pre-pandemic times at the Democratic governors of Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and this year in Pennsylvania, where a Republican-backed initiative was passed in that state’s May 18 primary.
In 2021, the GOP also is focusing on the power of governors and other officials to change election rules and certify results—as if the answer to a failed attempt to steal the 2020 election through state legislatures is to try harder in 2024. We’re seeing a gradual whittling away at the separation of powers that has governed us for more than two centuries, and which was designed to distinguish us from the monarchy we rebelled against.
In the United States, we are in a two-year period in which voting rights need to be secured, or it’s quite likely they never will be. If just one chamber of Congress flips to Republican control in 2022—and midterms often lead to losses for the governing party—not only does Biden’s agenda stop cold, so does any hope of enacting meaningful voting reforms. Unless the Democrats can rally to push through legislation that protects the right to vote now and into the future, elections may cease to matter entirely.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.