Next week, the Biden Administration will convene a two-day virtual Summit for Democracy. The summit will kick off a “year of action” intended to buttress democracy against the worldwide trend of rising authoritarianism, culminating in an in-person gathering in December 2022. President Biden deserves credit for making defense of democracy a focal point of his foreign policy. But it will not be lost on any of the participants that democratic values are under threat in the United States itself. Reversing this trend at home is critical to maintaining U.S. leadership abroad. There is a narrow window to pass the necessary changes in time for the 2022 midterms – but it is closing fast.
American democracy has never been perfect. At its best, however, the United States has been a bastion for global democratic values — as the widely respected International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) recently noted in its annual survey of democracies around the world. But this same report for the first time categorized the United States as a “backsliding” democracy, noting in particular attacks by former President Donald Trump and others on the legitimacy of our elections.
In the months since the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, we have learned just how involved the former President was in attempting to overturn the 2020 results. Those efforts failed, but they have given rise to a disturbing new push to sabotage future elections. Driven by the Big Lie – the false allegation that Trump actually won in 2020 but was denied victory by widespread voter fraud – partisan actors across the country are taking steps to make it possible to overturn future election results and raise additional barriers to voting.
As law after law passes in the states, there has been no meaningful federal legislative response. State legislators around the country are making it easier to manipulate future election outcomes and ignore voters. They are conducting partisan “reviews” of 2020 election results that misleadingly cast doubt on official results with innuendo and falsehoods. They are subjecting election officials to new criminal penalties for minor infractions (making it easier to intimidate and punish them). They are giving partisan actors power to seize control of election administration outright in local jurisdictions. They are even floating bills to let state legislatures simply overturn election outcomes.
The not-so-implicit message underlying these efforts is that certification of the vote count, whether done by an election administrator or legislature, should be more than a ministerial act, and that partisan actors should have the power to overrule results they don’t like. Indeed, as the Washington Post and others have reported, Trump allies who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election are working to place themselves in key election posts around the country. That includes a candidate for Secretary of State in Georgia, who explicitly rejected the 2020 certification; candidates in Michigan and Nevada, who have spread false claims of election fraud; and candidates in Arizona, one of whom has called for the 2020 outcome to be “decertified and set aside.”
Proponents of the Big Lie are also among those driving broader efforts to make voting harder. Between January 1 and September 27, 2021, a record 19 states passed 33 new laws restricting voting access. These measures frequently target voting methods that Democrats and voters of color used in large numbers for the first time in 2020. For instance, a new Georgia law reduces the number of drop boxes for people to leave their mail ballots in the four major counties surrounding Atlanta from 111 to 23, although some 305,000 voters used these boxes in 2020. Texas has criminalized the common practice of sending mail ballot applications to all eligible voters (one of many new restrictions). Other changes likely to disparately affect voters of color and other vulnerable groups include harsher voter identification requirements, expansion of aggressive voter roll purges (which disenfranchise legitimate voters far more than they prevent fraud), and reductions in polling place accessibility. This is only the latest in a series of efforts to restrict voting access since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the most important safeguards against racial discrimination in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (This year the Court issued another decision narrowing the Act’s remaining protections.)
On top of voter suppression, the United States remains the only developed democracy to still give partisan legislators the power to draw their own electoral districts, which is already producing another round of extreme partisan gerrymanders that primarily target voters of color. Our crippled campaign finance system poses yet another set of challenges — lax safeguards have, among other things, made it easier for America’s authoritarian rivals to use foreign money to manipulate the U.S. electorate.
These are not simply domestic concerns. As a bipartisan pair of former national security officials recently noted, America’s global influence rests squarely on the health of its democracy, which for all its flaws has “stood as a model and inspiration for other countries.” As the United States asks other countries to step up and revitalize their democratic institutions, it must do the same.
That requires more than prosecuting the January 6 perpetrators or making minor legislative or administrative tweaks. The United States needs the comprehensive overhaul that is embodied in two key bills pending before Congress: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The former would curb partisan takeovers of election administration, sham “reviews” of election results, and other types of election sabotage gaining traction in the states. It would also set baseline national protections for the right to vote and to have that vote counted in federal elections, end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, and overhaul the United States’ campaign finance system. The latter bill would restore and update the Voting Rights Act’s full protections against racial discrimination in voting, restoring the protections hollowed out by the Supreme Court’s recent decisions.
The Summit for Democracy will convene just as the push to pass these two critical bills is coming to a head. Having earlier been declared all but dead in the press, the push for federal legislation has made real progress, and now both bills have enough support to pass on an up-or-down vote. Standing in the way is the Senate filibuster — but that has been modified many times in the past and could be changed again to restore the legislative process while preserving — and even enhancing — debate and deliberation in the Senate. With redistricting moving quickly and the first primaries of the 2022 general election less than three months away, time is running out. Getting these bills over the finish line is essential if the United States is to truly reclaim the mantle of global leadership on democracy to which the Biden Administration rightly aspires.