Joe Biden’s first year in office, with respect to his domestic efforts, can be characterized by its unshakable partisan gridlock. This is certainly not a new feature of the modern American presidency, as similar things could be said for his two predecessors. However, the legislative partisanship we are witnessing today is as extreme as we have seen it in quite some time. As Biden and conservative Democrats Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin go back to the drawing board on a new reconciliation bill, party leadership has turned its attention to voting rights.
Biden’s 2020 election burgeoned some of America’s most antidemocratic sentiments. Donald Trump’s false claims of wide-scale election fraud severely undermined crucial democratic norms. Constitutional democracies, such as the United States, rely heavily on written statues and unwritten codes of conduct. Among such customary norms includes mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration refers to accepting opposing political interests as legitimate and worthy of respect. By falsely accusing the Democrats of cheating when he lost, Trump shattered this long-held norm. To this day, the majority of GOP voters still believe that the election was rigged against them. Institutional forbearance refers to refraining from using the full extent of one’s constitutional power to unfairly disadvantage other’s interests. Trump violated this norm countless times, but a particularly striking example which recently came to light was his proposed executive order which mandated that the Secretary of Defense seize voting machines and paper election records. Although it was not officially put into action, even the fact Trump considered signing this executive order demonstrates his indifference to democratic norms.
The Trump administration, both through its actions and its rhetoric, significantly reduced public trust in the electoral system. The culmination of these developments occurred on January 6th, when Trump-supporting rioters stormed the Senate prior to procedures which would eventually confirm Biden as the next president. GOP lawmakers, taking advantage of these attitudes, committed to reforming electoral laws in a way which would satisfy their constituents. Voter ID laws, voter registration purges and limits on mail voting were proposed and later passed by several state governments. These laws, effectively, make it more expensive to replace members of congress, do not meaningfully address overstated claims of voter fraud and disproportionately disenfranchise the working class and voters of color. The true purpose of these antidemocratic reforms is to create barriers to voting which disproportionately benefit the GOP. This also violates the norm of institutional forbearance by granting Republicans an electoral advantage using a disingenuous justification. These efforts create a precarious situation for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterms, emphasizing the necessity for a new federal voting rights bill.
The Freedom to Vote Act addresses these concerning developments while also addressing previously existing areas of concern. Some of the bill’s most important policies include an expansion of voter registration (allowing for same day and automatic registration), declaring election day a national holiday, the enfranchisement of convicted felons after they’ve served their sentence, a requirement that states audit their votes, an addressal of gerrymandering and new regulations which mandate transparency and limitations on campaign finance. All of these proposed changes promote democracy and some even attempt to address anxiety over election legitimacy.
Voter registration reform is extremely important considering the GOP has attempted to limit or purge the polls after a certain amount of inactivity. Also included is an expansion of mail and early voting, which allows individuals greater flexibility and reduces wait times on election day. Creating a national holiday for elections is similarly pro-democratic, as it creates a scenario where workers no longer have to pick between voting or financially supporting themselves. The enfranchisement of felons is a controversial subject in the United States, but is nonetheless a crucial step towards a more equitable system. America, by far and away, has the largest incarcerated population; the U.S. accounts for only 4% of the world’s population, yet nearly a quarter of all incarcerated peoples reside in the states. A great number of prisoners in the United States are nonviolent criminals, receiving major convictions on account of crimes such as prostitution, larceny, petty theft or drug possession. People of color and working class Americans are strongly overrepresented in prisons, as the American judiciary continues its history of racist sentencing disparities and undeniable class privilege. Similarly developed democracies, whose prison populations are lower and whose enforcement of petty crimes is far less strict, have long allowed for convicted felons to vote. If the United States government wants to promote democracy, it ought to follow in their footsteps, acknowledging the fundamental flaws of its criminal justice systems and abolishing the permanent electoral punishment of felons after they have served their sentence.
Gerrymandering is a rampant inhibitor of Democracy in the United States. It has been used by both major political parties, but is more severely practiced by the Republicans. Democrats gerrymander less not for their moral superiority, but simply for the fact that it is easier and more effective when employed by the GOP. Given the ideological gap among racial groups they can, to their benefit, draw districts on racial lines and maximize their representation. For Democrats, it is harder to identify which communities are conservative, thus making these tactics less successful. It should go without saying that the irregular drawing of districts to maximize electoral success is highly undemocratic. While some states hire an impartial third party to draw districts, many Republican governor’s offices control this process themselves. When this issue was brought forth to the Supreme Court, it recused itself of the authority to determine the constitutionality of gerrymandering. This effectively erased any hope of a sweeping federal response. And given the current construction of the court, it is safe to assume that it will not occur any time soon. The portions of this bill which seek to combat gerrymandering are limited in their scope and strength. However, any legal means through which gerrymandering is limited, is nonetheless a step in the right direction.
The campaign finance portion of the FTVA is a timely response to the Trump administration’s shady dealings with the Russian government. Limiting foreign intervention into a democracy is important, but such legislation should always be closely examined. These reforms can and have been weaponized by authoritarians, like Vladimir Putin, to reign in the power of NGO’s who seek to promote democracy and socially liberal policies. Any attempt to modify campaign finance with respect to foreign nationals should be subject to introspection, but in the case of the new Voting Rights bill it can almost unequivocally be described as pro-democratic. The targets of this clause are not democracy-promoting NGO’s, but instead foreign actors who seek to undermine the United States and cause division. Several Trump campaign supervisors were proven to have colluded with Russia to spread misinformation on social media platforms, disparage political American hegemony and the rule of law. The reform in question only seeks to require greater financial transparency with respect to political campaigns and more strictly enforce existing statutes which prohibit foreign collusion. These changes do not endeavor to undermine democratic international agencies; instead, they protect democracy from nefarious actors, a necessary feature for its survival in a globalized, digital age.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced the bill into the senate in mid September. Since Biden’s Build Back Better plan was shelved, passing this act has been the Democrat’s greatest priority. From the beginning, many knew this would be an uphill battle as conservatives have stood on a united front against electoral reforms which disadvantage them. The final vote predictably was divided on party lines, falling comfortably short of the 60 vote threshold. The only Senator to vote with the opposing party was Chuck Schumer, who only did so to keep alive the possibility that Democrats could change the senate rules and eliminate the filibuster. This plot was predictably foiled by Manchin and Sinema, who have less electoral incentive to secure voting rights compared to the rest of the party.
Where does this leave us now? Democrats could reconvene and draft another piece of legislation, one with which at least 10 of their Republican counterparts will be happy. To do so would require such significant distortion to the act’s provisions, that it would change the character of the bill altogether. It is also unlikely that a compromise could be made with Manchin, as their disagreement stems not from the statute, but instead the destruction of the filibuster. With all this being said, it is nearly impossible that the Democrats will be able to pull together significant electoral reform before the 2022 primaries. As Biden’s approval rating has fallen to its lowest point since taking office, GOP-controlled state governments continue to modify their electoral procedures. For democrats, these developments spell disaster not only for the midterms later this year, but also the 2024 presidential election, a possible 2020 rematch.
The threats emanating from electoral reforms in Republican states as well as another term of Donald Trump in the White House should not be taken lightly. Democratic voters and lawmakers should not be the only ones concerned with these developments. Anyone who holds sacred the preservation of a democratic form of government in the United States should be alarmed. As history has shown us elsewhere, institutions can fall in a number of ways and at various speeds; democracy, in hegemonic nations such as the United States, is often defeated through a gradual erosion.
I really appreciated your piece Daniel, and I think that you did a great job of highlighting the nuance and context of the FTVA. I think that the overarching and looming midterm elections that you mention at the end are definitely important in understanding how and why this bill was being pushed, but I also appreciated the background and history. You point out fact that gerrymandering and voter suppression disproportionately affect people of color, and how proposals for voting rights reforms can make the experience more democratic. I think maybe you could have gone more in-depth as to how these limitations to voting, such as felon disenfranchisements and limited early or mail-in voting are connected to democratic erosion. How are people’s voting rights connected to authoritarian or potentially authoritarian behavior? I do think you did a great job of pointing out how the GOP takes advantage of gerrymandering’s Republican bias to create a power-grab when districts are re-drawn. Your piece touches on many important aspects of the FTVA bill, but I am interested in these aspects of voter rights and aspects of democratic erosion.