How Democrats Can Thwart Republican Assaults on Voting Rights

March 1, 2021

After a brief rebellion, the Republican leaders in Congress have surrendered to Donald Trump. Mitch McConnell said he would “absolutely” support Donald Trump if he is the party’s nominee in 2024. Even Sen. Mitt Romney, no fan of the former president, predicted that Trump will win the nomination if he runs.

A few brave Republicans still point out that Trump tried to pull off a coup, but they are voices crying in a political wilderness. We should admire Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyoming), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Illinois), and Sen. Ben Sasse (Nebraska) for their courage and honesty. However, they are a small minority in a profoundly anti-democratic party. The Dark Side has won.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers on the state level have drawn the wrong lessons from the 2020 elections. Mail-in ballots and early voting helped to make voting easier and safer, so what is their response? They are rushing to enact laws to make it more difficult for Americans to vote. So far, they have introduced over 160 bills in 33 states to restrict access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Faced with this onslaught, what can Democrats do to safeguard American democracy?

The Democrats should change the rules.

They should pass the “For the People Act”, which would mandate sweeping reforms in voting practices for Federal elections. The Act would truly be a game-changer. The measure would require states to provide mail-in ballots, early voting and other measures to make voting easier in Congressional elections. Furthermore, the proposed law would ban many abusive practices, such as gerrymandering and purging eligible voters from the rolls.

Passing the Act is particularly urgent because lawmakers will redraw voting districts later this year, after the census data is released. In most cases, those maps will remain in effect for 10 years. Both political parties have resorted to gerrymandering districts to favor their candidates. However, Republicans control more state legislatures, so they have had, and will have, more opportunities to stack the deck in their favor. Unless the Act becomes law, many Congressional districts could have highly distorted maps until 2031.

The Democrats passed the Act in the House in 2019, but Mitch McConnell, the then-Senate Majority Leader, blocked it. After the Democrats won a majority in the Senate, in January 2021, Speaker Nancy Pelosi re-introduced the “For the People Act” in the House. The Democrats should be able to pass the bill in that chamber with their current majority.

Conservative Democrats Senators like Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) should not have a problem with the Act. Arizona was the first state to establish an independent commission to draw electoral maps.

Mitch McConnell and many other Republican Senators will undoubtedly fight the proposal tooth and nail. But this is a crucial battle, and the Democrats might attract some moderate Republican Senators’ support. For example, Utah, Sen. Romney’s state, has used mail-in voting almost exclusively for years.

Still, finding 10 Republican votes in the Senate will be a steep challenge, and it might be mission impossible. Democrats may have to decide whether or not they will eliminate the filibuster so they can pass the For the People Act.

Whatever route they choose to follow in Congress, the Democrats have to move quickly, because the window for passage may be narrow. They only hold 50 Senate seats, and the 2022 midterms may not be favorable to the Democrats. The governing party typically loses some seats after two years in power.

The For the People Act would end gerrymandering in Congressional elections, by ordering states to set up independent commissions to draw the maps for Congressional voting districts. Gerrymandering is one of the gravest problems that our democracy faces.

In most states, the legislature draws up the maps for state and Congressional voting districts. If one political party dominates the legislature, as is often the case, the lawmakers will carve up the districts to give their candidates an unfair advantage.

As one reformer described the practice,

Gerrymandering is a dirty deed, done once a decade in a smoke-filled back room, that most voters don’t even know about.

The goal of gerrymandering is to disenfranchise one party’s voters, and it often affects minority voters in particular. The practice has grown more widespread and extreme over the last 10 years, with the advent of cheap, powerful software programs.

North Carolina and Pennsylvania, two battleground states, show how badly gerrymandering distorts elections. Both states are purple, split about 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans. But through gerrymandering Republicans “won” 13 out of 18 Congressional seats in Pennsylvania, or 72%. In North Carolina, the Republicans grabbed 10 out of 13 seats (77%). North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, an example of gerrymandering, shows how the Republicans achieved that.

North Carolina 12th Congressional District (U.S. Government map)

These abuses of power are poisoning the political atmosphere in many states. Elections become less competitive, so politicians are less inclined to compromise. Instead of appealing to a broad mix of voters with different political tendencies, candidates focus only on the demands of their party’s voters…and sometimes on that party’s loudest voices.

Uncompetitive elections also lead to voter apathy, because the disadvantaged voters know that their votes don’t count, literally. So fewer Americans bother to vote.

However, several other states have found a better way. They have taken the map-making power away from the legislature and entrusted it to an independent commission. Under California’s approach, which is the best model, the commission’s membership must be balanced between Republicans, Democrats and independents. No politician can sit on the commission or choose its members. This system has created fairly drawn, nonpartisan maps for elections in California.

The For the People Act would mandate that states follow this approach for Congressional elections. Congress has the power to set standards for Federal elections, but it has not previously exercised that authority, except in one area. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits states from adopting voting practices, and drawing maps, that discriminate against racial minorities.

Senator McConnell opposed the For the People Act in 2019 on the grounds that it violated “states’ rights” to conduct their elections. States do have the authority, generally, to run their elections as they see fit. However, the Act applies only to Federal elections, not contests on the state level. McConnell’s use of “states’ rights” in this context may mean what it usually does — giving state officials leeway to employ tactics that discriminate against minorities and more broadly, Democratic voters.

So the “states’ rights” argument is a smokescreen. McConnell and other Republicans may be especially worried because polls have shown that most voters, regardless of party, don’t like gerrymandering. They want elections to be more competitive. After all, redistricting abuses can cut both ways, depending on which party is dominant.

The Republicans may also be concerned about knock-on effects. The Act’s approach could serve as a model for state-level elections, and it might inspire local reforms. If, for example, voters in Kentucky saw that an independent commission produced fairer elections for Congressional races, they might demand the same approach for state races.

And, as a practical matter, citizens might start to ask their representatives why their state should maintain, and pay for, two separate systems for drawing voting districts.

If the Act is passed, every American’s vote would count, at least in Congressional races. That would be a vast improvement over our current, distorted system.

And who knows? With more competitive elections, maybe politicians in both parties will start listening to the voters on the other side.

A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.