Last weekend, Texas
Democrats won a stunning victory in the nationwide legislative battle over voting rights
when they walked out in protest
of state House Republicans
passing yet another sweeping package of voting restrictions.
Even so, the episode highlighted a reality confronting voting rights advocates and their Democratic allies: Republican state legislatures are currently winning their war on voting rights and American democracy
, and stopping them will require far more drastic action than many Democrats, particularly Democrats in Washington
, have been willing to consider.
Republicans have advanced legislation — and in some states, passed bills into law — that would make it easier for local officials and legislatures to overturn future elections
, fueled by lies that widespread voter fraud cost Donald Trump
the 2020 election
Democratic state legislatures have pushed for voting rights expansion, and Democratic leaders made major voting rights and election reform packages a top priority at the start of this Congress
However, the breadth of Democrats' expansive bills in state legislatures has not matched the zeal of Republicans' efforts to limit voting rights, nor has the Democrats' strategy.
Key Senate Democrats
, including West Virginia
Sen. Joe Manchin
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema
, have refused to support filibuster reform
or abolition in order to pass the For The People Act
, the sweeping election reform and voting rights legislation that passed the House in March. Republicans are uniformly opposed to the bill, and the insistence on bipartisanship
from key Democratic players will likely kibosh the bill.
Meanwhile, Republican state legislators have shown no reluctance to use their majorities to enact the kinds of major voting restrictions and election reforms they believe will help them win — or give them more power to overturn elections if they don't.
“They’re working to criminalize voting, and they’re working to criminalize protesting,” Nse Ufot, CEO
of the New Georgia
Project, said, adding that “too many Democrats are not meeting the urgency of this moment with their own urgency in action.”
To Suppress the Vote, ‘A Virtually Unprecedented Effort’
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republican legislatures in 14 states have already passed 23 new voter suppression
laws, and another 60 restrictive bills are moving
through legislatures in 18 states, according to the Brennan Center's legislative tracker. At this rate, the United States
will have more new voter suppression laws than in any year since 2011, when a rash of new suffrage laws were passed.
State legislatures have approved more bills that expand voting rights than bills that restrict them; however, many of those bills have passed in states where voting is already easier, implying that progress has been slower than the regress that has occurred as Republicans impose new restrictions in key swing states and solidly red states alike.
's initiatives have specifically targeted Black, brown, and Native voters
, as well as initiatives that help expand access to the polls and programs that drive turnout among traditionally disenfranchised populations.
“We are witnessing a virtually unprecedented effort to suppress Americans’ right to vote in states across the country, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Jim Crow era,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, the Brennan Center’s state voting laws program director.
Democrats and voting rights advocates have succeeded in drawing widespread scrutiny to the GOP's efforts to restrict voting rights, including from major corporations that have traditionally funded and backed Republicans. However, the GOP has remained unified around voter suppression, shrugged off public and corporate opposition, and advanced major voting restriction bills amidst widespread public and corporate opposition.
Although some of the most obviously anti-democratic ideas have died in state legislatures, others have thrived and spread. At the last minute, Texas Republicans inserted language into their voting restrictions package that would have lowered the threshold for courts to overturn an election. Georgia’s new law similarly allows the state legislature to suspend election officials they don’t like, a practice that has been widely condemned.
The Arizona GOP's "audit" of Maricopa County
election results is an obvious sham, as county GOP officials have argued, but the absurdity of the spectacle has only drawn more support from Republicans from other states, who have flocked to Phoenix to witness it. Efforts to conduct similarly conspiratorial reviews of the election are intensifying in other states, although courts and even so-called experts have questioned their legitimacy.
“I don’t know how mainstream it will become, but it is certainly spreading across the country,” Colorado Secretary of State
Jena Griswold (D) told Stardia this week.
Even the Democratic victory in Texas may be fleeting, as the GOP legislature there will propose a new package of voting restrictions during a special legislative session this fall, and some Texas activists are concerned that Republicans will propose an even more aggressive package of restrictions.
Recognizing the importance of time
Nonetheless, some activists believe that Democrats in Washington, particularly Manchin and Sinema — the latter of whom supports the For The People Act but not filibuster reform — are unaware of the gravity of the situation.
This includes the Republican assault
on voting rights in states, as well as a Republican Party
in which 139 GOP members of Congress voted to overturn an election in January, then voted against establishing a commission
to investigate the riotous insurgency that resulted from their lies.
“There is a misguided commitment to ensuring that this passes with a bipartisan vote,” Ufot said, “and they appear to be willing to leverage the attacks on democracy for some sort of intellectual commitment that they have to bipartisanship, even if it doesn’t make sense....”
Voting rights advocates welcomed Biden
's decision to put Vice President Kamala Harris
in charge of voting rights legislation this week as a welcome sign that the administration is prioritizing democracy protection. The Senate's confirmation of Kristen Clarke
to head the Justice Department
's Civil Rights
Division has also raised hopes that the nation's top law enforcement body
will do the same.
“We’ve been playing whack-a-mole filing lawsuits or being parties to lawsuits across the landscape,” said NAACP
President Derrick Johnson. “There is no way, considering the rapid pace at which legislative bodies are seeking to suppress the Black vote, that we will be able to keep up all our efforts without support from this administration and the federal government stepping in and pushing back.”
Johnson will meet with Manchin next week, and other groups are planning to increase public pressure on the ground in Arizona and West Virginia to sway the two most visible Democratic holdouts; they also want Biden and Harris to push Manchin and Sinema, and the White House
is planning to pressure more corporations to join the fight as well.
But anxiety about the fate of the For The People Act is growing, even as voting rights groups publicly insist they are still optimistic about its chances of passing this year. For months, activists have reminded Democrats that federal action is required, but those calls have reached a fever pitch: even as they celebrated the victory in Texas this week, voting rights groups pleaded for assistance from Washington.
“We can’t just fight this in Georgia and then hop over to Florida
and then over to Texas,” Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said on a press call this week. “We need federal legislation. We need the full force of the White House and the full force of Congress to stand on the side of people, to stand on the side of democracy.”
An 'All Hands On Deck' Situation
Despite all of the Republican wringing of hands over the last election, the party's most anti-democratic members are primarily concerned with the next one.
Republicans seeking to undermine and overturn the 2020 election results have launched campaigns for secretary of state in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan
, and Nevada
, with more expected to follow.
During the pandemic
last year, secretaries of state oversaw and directed efforts to expand voting by mail and other ballot access measures, and they were at the forefront of the effort to protect the election from outright lies that it had been stolen or was riddled with fraud.
If election skeptics like Georgia GOP Rep. Jody Hice
, who wanted to overturn his state's election, can seize such positions in 2022, they will have major platforms from which to act just as aggressively against democracy as many election officials did last year.
“There are so many barriers you could put up,” Colorado Secretary of State Griswold said. “You could continue to spread lies to try to decrease confidence. You could do fake audits.”
But her greatest concern is that "they will use their office to suppress votes
and tilt elections in favor of themselves and their political friends
Democrats argue that Republicans' assaults on democracy and botched efforts to overturn last year's election have awakened voters and the Democratic Party
to the importance of down-ballot races such as secretary of state and state legislative seats, and that Republicans' continued radicalization will harm them even more.
There are some signs that this is the case: the GOP's baseless allegations of voter fraud may have harmed trust in the voting process and reduced Republican turnout in a special congressional election in New Mexico
this week, which Democrat Melanie Stansbury
won by a larger margin in the district than Biden or former Rep. Deb Haaland
(D), who left the seat to serve as interior secretary, did last year.
However, winning at the state level has not been a specialty of the modern Democratic Party, which failed to gain any new state legislative majorities in 2020, making it easier for angry, conspiracy
theory-driven Republicans to push voting restrictions and other anti-democratic legislation in states such as Arizona, Texas, and Michigan.
So, winning the fight over the For The People Act may be Democrats' and voting rights groups' best chance of preventing the most dramatic backslide in American democracy since the Jim Crow era — a backslide that could take a generation or more to reverse even in the best-case scenario, and pose an existential threat to democracy in the worst-case scenario.
“We need to mobilize multiple sectors of civil society to make this happen,” Ufot said of the bill’s passage. “We’re talking about the press, we’re talking about corporations, we’re talking about activists and organizers, we’re talking about civil rights groups, we’re talking about state elected officials, we’re talking about the federal administration.”
“This is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment, and not all hands are on deck yet,” she said, “but my hope is that they will be before this vote.”