In the debate about much needed democracy reforms, we should agree on some basic facts
Senate Republicans recently voted against bringing a sweeping democracy reform bill to the floor for debate. The result was no surprise. Nor were the arguments made by the few Republicans who spoke against the For the People Act. They echoed what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said for the last 20 years while defending the status quo in Washington.
Some process points are legitimate — that the bill is sprawling and was constructed in a partisan fashion. But what the Republicans failed to note was that many of the reforms in the bill have strong bipartisan roots — from bringing greater transparency to political ads to strengthening enforcement of existing campaign finance laws, shining a light on dark money and reforming the overly partisan redistricting process. These and many other provisions have overwhelming public support across the political spectrum.
S.1 should not have been filibustered. The American people deserve a debate. This vote should not be the end of the desperately needed conversation about how to collectively strengthen our democracy. This vote should be a beginning. That is, unless a majority of members of Congress think American democracy is perfectly tuned right now. But we all know that’s not the case.
As lawmakers consider next steps, it would be good to agree on some basic facts. Here are some.
Fact 1: Our democracy is long overdue for an upgrade at a moment in history when democracies are losing ground globally to authoritarianism.
Our country’s representatives have allowed our democracy to wither over the last 40 years. And while every measure of our civic health has gotten progressively worse — except for voter turnout the most recent presidential election — there’s been no federal response. Legislators have repeatedly squandered opportunities to turn the tide and replenish our systems and institutions.
Fact 2: Over the last six months, Republican-controlled state legislatures have engaged in a partisan power grab.
State legislators have been seizing on the widely debunked myth that the 2020 election was “stolen” to enact laws that restrict voting and place election administration in the hands of partisan politicians who could thwart the will of the people and overturn election results they disagree with. Not all provisions of these laws have been bad for voters. Some have expanded early and absentee voting. But in many instances the purpose has been clear — to create barriers to voting for partisan advantage. This was articulated a year ago by former President Trump himself when he was asked about Democratic attempts to expand absentee ballot voting in the COVID-19 relief bill. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he quipped.
The voting provisions in the For the People Act don’t directly address some of these newer state restrictions, but the bill does expand voting by automatically registering eligible voters, extend early voting to all 50 states and expand early voting and vote by mail, among other provisions designed to protect the integrity of our elections and the right to vote. Red and blue states alike adopted some of these practices amidst the pandemic and the result was clear: greater participation by both of the major parties.
Another way to grab power is to control redistricting. When it comes to gerrymandering, both parties do it, it is just that in the last decade the Republican Party has been far more effective than Democrats. Most Americans know that having politicians pick their voters and not the other way around is a rotten way to run a government, and they want it fixed. That’s another example of another bipartisan provision in the For the People Act.
Fact 3: Democrats constructed their bill in a partisan fashion.
So, welcome to politics. It’s not at all unusual — both parties do it, especially when they are in the majority. Then deal-making occurs. Case in point, the just-announced deal struck on infrastructure. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has already introduced new ideas to S.1, including ones that fly in the face of Democratic orthodoxy. The burden is now on Republicans to contribute policy suggestions, not just say no.
Fact 4: For decades, Washington has been swayed by big money on both sides of the aisle.
It’s an issue that helped propel Trump to the White House in 2016 and has energized many Democrats alike. The American people feel alienated from their very government because of it — and with good reason. No campaign finance bill has been passed by Congress since 2002, when it was powered by bipartisan support. The problem has only gotten much worse since then, and everybody knows it — most of all, average Americans.
Fact 5: Despite claims by many that the federal government does not have a role in managing federal elections, the Constitution says otherwise.
Article 1, Section 4 explicitly states: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.” It’s that second clause, disregarded by critics of political reform, that empowers Congress to protect our elections and every citizen’s right to vote.
It’s with that spirit — of democracy advancement — that most Americans hope members of Congress can get something done. Manchin’s proposals show that there is a path forward.
The governing breakdown we’ve seen in recent years — culminating in an armed insurrection aimed at shutting down a constitutional process — is in many ways the result of decades of deferred maintenance.
Our system of self-governance is like an aging bridge that can no longer safely accommodate day-to-day traffic. Something has to give. Let’s hope it’s Congress, not the bridge.
Nick Penniman is the founder and CEO of Issue One, a cross-partisan political reform organization, and the author of “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It.”
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