A photo of an "I Voted" sticker

State of Disunion

How Do We Save Democracy? Start With Voter Reform

The GOP's only path to victory is cheating citizens out of their vote. If the Democrats want to win, they'll have to restore it.

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We all knew that the minute the results of last Tuesday’s election came in, most political talk would turn to credible Democratic contenders against Trump in 2020. Indeed, the chatter began long before (Beto! Gillum! Kamala!), and the more skittish Democrats have been trying to put those discussions on pause to focus on the midterms first—and assess once the post-midterm political landscape becomes clear.

In Texas, where they have notoriously strict voter ID laws and historically low voter participation rates, Beto O’Rourke’s senatorial campaign was nothing short of inspiring. But supernatural charisma shouldn’t be necessary for a Democrat to be competitive in Texas—or anywhere—against a despised incumbent. Candidates cannot transcend gerrymandering and voter suppression all over the country, and they should not have to. And we should not accept that they have to. Focusing on voting reform is an easy call—it’s not simply strategically good for Democrats, it’s crucial if we are going to reverse this country’s slide into kleptocratic oligarchy and become a fully participatory  democracy.

A week after the midterm elections, I’m relieved to discover that among the House Democrats’ top priorities—the first bill they will seek to pass—includes voting reform. If we should have learned anything from the last several elections, it’s that the path to victories in all of these offices—the White House, the State Houses, Congress—has less to do with the charisma or specific personality traits of Democratic candidates and far more to do with ensuring that voters are able to vote, and that every vote is counted. If Democrats want to win and overcome the hurdles of both the electoral college and gerrymandering (which constrains both state and congressional victories), they need to tout themselves as the party of voting rights. And that means taking on voter disenfranchisement and making voting reform a centerpiece of their actions now, and of all candidates’ campaigns. Of course, the Republicans will inevitably oppose reform, but this will enable Democrats to tar the GOP for what it is—not so much a party, but a faction that prevents voting, rejects a core pillar of democracy, and has to cheat to “win” because it fears a fair fight.  They know their opposition to things like universal health insurance and gun safety legislation is unpopular with the overwhelming majority of Americans. They cheat because they can’t win in the marketplace of ideas.

For years, Republicans have flipped the script on their lack of electoral legitimacy by falsely accusing Democrats of engaging in fraud—and “fraud” to the GOP includes Democrats registering voters and insisting that every vote be counted. The GOP has actively promoted the lie that voter “fraud” is a rampant problem (when it is virtually non-existent), cynically fostering the urban legend that hordes of people are voting twice, or that people who have not properly registered to vote have voted, or that non-citizens have voted illegally—focusing their blame on people of color, the bloc of voters they most fear. The voter-fraud lie is actually a two-pronged approach that its architects use to entrench the GOP in power: First, it builds white support for laws that are designed, as multiple courts have found, to make it difficult or impossible for Democratic-leaning constituencies, especially people of color, to vote; and second, it promotes an equally false narrative that Democratic victories are illegitimate.

To combat and explode these narratives, it is critical to understand the way in which the GOP’s approach serves to build white support for and entrench white supremacist policies, and to undermine fundamental precepts of democratic government. The narratives manipulate basic notions of fairness (one person, one vote) and harness both latent and overt racism to convince whites that shadowy “others” are cheating to win. The truth is that voting is a right and not a privilege—for everyone.

With Donald Trump, the tactic of actively delegitimizing political opposition through a combination of willful constitutional violations and a massive, racist lie campaign has exploded. There are no more dog whistles, there are only brazen lies and giant bullhorns of bigotry. When Trump, after his 78,000 vote-across-three-states (WI, MI, PA) electoral victory immediately suggested that Hillary Clinton’s 3 million vote margin over him came from undocumented immigrants who do not have a right to vote, he was deliberately manufacturing a lie to deflect from the fact that more citizens preferred his opponent to him and to attack the legitimacy of Democratic votes— baseless statement grounded in the very racism, xenophobia, and nativism in which his candidacy (and now his presidency) was rooted.

In this midterm election cycle, we have seen Trump’s racist lying tactics emulated, repeated, and metastasized across the Trumpist GOP and their right-wing media propaganda arm, working in tandem with the voter-suppression laws that the GOP-controlled states enacted in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court’s notorious 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder which was decided 5-4. That case gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”) by declaring that the coverage formula, which determined which jurisdictions had to “preclear” changes to their election rules with the federal government before implementing them, based on their history of race-based voter discrimination, was outdated. The GOP-controlled Congress was not interested in holding hearings to update the formula, and thus the decision cleared the path for former slave-holding states that had actively disenfranchised minority voters throughout the Jim Crow era to introduce legislation designed to accomplish what the VRA had prohibited. By way of example, Texas enacted its voter suppression law within two hours of the decision, and states like North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi quickly followed suit. Republicans have passed laws requiring IDs that are proven to be harder for minorities and Democratic-leaning constituencies to obtain; they have closed the number of polling places in areas where minorities vote or moved their polling places to inconvenient locations; they have purged voters from the voter registration rolls; they have shut down the number of places in minority areas where people can register to vote; and engaged in other types of actions actively and surgically designed to prevent, discourage, or burden the right to vote out of existence. In fact, 24 states have enacted laws making it harder to vote since 2011,19 of them Republican-controlled.

During the midterms, we have seen the brazen attacks on voting rights in Georgia deployed against the state’s first viable African-American nominee for governor. Brian Kemp, the GOP gubernatorial nominee who fashioned himself in Trump’s xenophobic image and refused to resign his position as Secretary of State in charge of overseeing the very election in which he was competing, embarked on nakedly racist campaign, with suppressing the Black vote a key part of his strategy. The reports from Georgia—from Kemp’s exact match rules to prevent voters from registering to vote to the lack of functioning ballot machines to the long lines in Abrams-supporting districts resulting in emergency court orders to keep the polls open—exemplify this strategy.  And Kemp, like other Republicans before him, knows full well that his actions as secretary of State prevented Black voters from voting; in an unguarded moment, he  admitted that his concern about whether he would win the governor’s race stemmed from his fear of “everyone us[ing] and exercis[ing] their right to vote.”

We have seen these tactics used in North Dakota and Indiana and elsewhere, and in voter purges across the country, largely (though not entirely) in red states where the key to Republican victory lies in preventing people of color from voting. (The Brennan Center estimates that 16 million voters were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016.)

And so, with the governor races in Georgia and Florida—as well as the latter state’s Senate race—being too close to call, triggering mandatory recounts, the man who occupies the presidency and his sycophantic Mini-mes are falsely accusing Stacey Abrams, Bill Nelson, and Andrew Gillum of “fraud” for insisting that all votes be counted. Marco Rubio’s tweetstorm in support of Trump’s and Rick Scott’s false and baseless accusations was particularly disgusting and disingenuous, as he pathetically argued that the very counting of votes would somehow constitute “stealing” the election. In so doing he not only sought to deprive Floridians of their right to vote by preventing their votes from being counted, he also invoked the voter fraud shibboleth on which the GOP continuously relies to convince its base that Democrats—particularly people of color—cheat, when, in reality, the GOP has stayed in power by cheating U.S. citizens out of their votes through voter suppression and gerrymandering.  (A Jeb Bush–appointed judge rejected Scott’s baseless accusations of fraud with a pointed admonishment to “careful what we say,” and courts in Georgia have repeatedly ruled against Kemp’s voter suppression tactics.)

The broader picture here is that Trump and his allies are engaging in remaking truth itself: It began with Trump’s bragging that his paltry inauguration crowd was actually the biggest in history and that he got more votes than Hillary, and has continued unbroken from there. The lies are big and small, ranging from his having “nothing to do with Russia” to his claim that the Mueller investigation is a hoax, when in fact his businesses are wrapped up in Russian money and the investigation has already yielded 35 known indictments. And now, the White House is circulating InfoWars doctored-up videos of Jim Acosta supposedly groping a female reporter who grabbed his microphone, and Trump is claiming he “never met” the illegitimately installed and hopelessly compromised Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker—a man he has met with 12 times.

Trump and his allies are thus engaged in a deeply pernicious demonization of dissent and destabilization of the foundations of our society. So while the false accusations against Gillum, Abrams, and Nelson are rooted in both political expediency and white supremacy, they go even deeper and darker that that—they really are an attack on objective reality, an attack on pluralism and the democratic process.

Which brings me to 2020 and to right now. We saw in 2018 that Democrats were able to make great inroads in Texas and flip a long-held red Senate seat in Arizona by virtue of increased voter registration and grassroots efforts to get registered voters to the polls. While I have not yet seen an evidence-based analysis of the precise impact that expanded voter registration had on election outcomes, news reports and other anecdotal evidence suggest that it made a significant difference.

Democrats have got to make voting reform a priority so that the constituencies who prefer them will actually be able to vote, be motivated to vote, understand that their votes count, and have their votes counted. Frankly, if this were to occur, the entire country, including the Republican Party, would benefit, because demographic reality would force the GOP to stop catering solely to the fears and grievances of old white people and rich donors and instead begin addressing the needs of young and diverse voters. A party whose “success” is dependent on preventing the young and the non-white from voting cannot survive and is not legitimate.

So House Democrats are right to immediately address the many issues plaguing our voting system. The omnibus bill they are promising to pass seeks to restore the Voting Rights Act and pass automatic voter registration, as well as to take on Citizens United and gerrymandering. Realistically, it has little hope of passing in the Senate. Come January, to build both awareness and pressure on the Republican senators facing re-election in blue states in 2020, the Democratic-controlled House needs first to hold public hearings on voter suppression and then update the coverage formula of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and enact reform legislation protecting the right to vote and the integrity of our elections. That means hearing from election experts not only about the ways in which all voters are disenfranchised or have their votes burdened, but getting recommendations for improving access to the polls, before introducing legislation designed to achieve these goals.

Democrats also need to push at the state level to either end voter registration, which actually serves to suppress the vote by creating a barrier to voting, or enact reforms like automatic voter registration and Election Day registration and elimination of registration purges, to make it easy to register, and thus to vote. Election Day should be a holiday and voting should be permitted early and/or by mail to address the fact that many people cannot get physically to the polls for a variety of reasons. There is no excuse or reason for poll closures and inadequate voting machines and lack of a paper trail or audit mechanism and long lines and the types of disenfranchising shenanigans that Republicans pull and then pretend were not racially or politically motivated, but were just random accidents or voter “fraud” protection.

If the Senate-controlled GOP refuses to support voting reform legislation, every Democrat can run on that in 2020. And Democrats must do the same at the state level, both by enacting voting reform legislation in the states they control and pushing for it aggressively in the states they don’t.

These reforms, more than any given candidate, are what are critically necessary for Democrats to be competitive in now-red states and to flip seats across the country and retake the presidency. If our voters can’t vote, we can’t win. We are already gerrymandered to the point where we have to have massive wins to make any gains in some states. And while this outcome is politically illegitimate, resulting in nonrepresentative government catering to a minority of people and to wealthy donors, the GOP is untroubled because its anti-democratic tricks have worked to keep it in power.  But when everyone can vote, presumably ideas that benefit the most people, and not just the rich and the privileged, will flourish. By taking on voting reform, the Democrats can hammer home this message and the GOP’s near-total capture by special interests like the NRA. And If the GOP wants to openly wear the mantle of political illegitimacy and tyranny of the minority, voters will have a very clear choice between the parties. For the choice between “winning” at all costs and through anti-democratic means, and winning or losing by the processes that are guaranteed by the Constitution is a stark one.  Are voters for or against democratic governance? The choice should be easy.

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