There is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections

Stickers are seen at the Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Virginia is voting for governor, state house and senate races.
Greg Nash

Many of us were disappointed to see crucial democracy reforms fall short in the Senate last week. Our political system is broken. The public is losing trust in our institutions. And an anti-democratic movement has emerged in our country in recent years that’s eerily similar to ones that have severely infected once-vibrant democracies in Eastern Europe, East Africa and South America. If ever there was a need to repair the systems of our republic, protect access to the ballot box and strengthen our elections, that time is now.  

Let’s start with a simple point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans: If Americans cannot trust our elections, our democracy cannot hold. That common entry point leads to a bipartisan path to improve the voting experience and protect our elections from threats, both foreign and domestic.

After months of opposing or remaining neutral on the Freedom To Vote Act, several Republican senators took to the floor and to Twitter last week and said what they are for, when it comes to supporting voting and strengthening elections. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) indicated he could back a version of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others have pointed to the need to amend the Electoral Count Act (ECA). Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) had his staff print a large placard of what he stood for — including creating incentives for states to adopt best election practices, updating the ECA and improving cybersecurity for elections — that stood on an easel next to him as he spoke from the well of the Senate. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) spoke up with various suggestions for compromise and collaboration. 

These are all good signs. And they’re reflective of a larger consensus beyond the nation’s capital. Election reforms and innovations have a deep history of bipartisan support — in states and in Congress — and there’s reason to remain optimistic about the potential for bipartisan measures to pass this year. These include updating the Electoral Count Act, protecting election workers, ensuring at least seven days of early voting before a federal election, providing absentee voting options to all voters and improving cybersecurity standards. 

But let’s be clear: while passing these measures are important, we cannot take our eye off voting rights and fail to protect every American’s freedom to vote or stop politicians from taking over elections for partisan gain. 

Congress needs to restore the Voting Rights Act and update the law’s preclearance formula to prevent discriminatory voting policies. Congress has reauthorized this landmark piece of legislation on five separate occasions since its original passage in 1965. The last time it was reauthorized in 2006, it was done with unanimous support in the Senate and signed by a Republican president. As Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) wrote last year in calling for the bipartisan reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, “Inaction is not an option. Congress must come together — just as we have done time and again — to reaffirm our longstanding bipartisan commitment to free, accessible, and secure elections for all.”

It’s a reminder that while Congress can and should come together to improve our election infrastructure, it is no substitute for federal legislation that protects access to the ballot box — no matter your political ideology, gender, skin color or ZIP code. That fight continues, and we must aggressively fight any and all efforts to restrict voting.  

Take Virginia, for example. In 2020, Democratic governor Ralph Northam and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly enacted 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting, permitted Sunday voting, made Election Day a state holiday, and passed automatic voter registration for anyone with a Virginia driver’s license. That year, a record number of Virginians cast their ballots, and Democrats fared well. But a year later, voters set another turnout record. This time, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin won the governorship and flipped the Virginia House of Delegates red. These types of election reforms are truly nonpartisan. They aren’t designed to benefit any one party over another. When we make voting accessible, the voters are the real winners. 

This is a defining era not just for our great democratic republic but for the durability and sustainability of similar experiments in self-government and freedom around the world. When perennially neglected, such experiments ultimately fail. When consistently tended they thrive. That’s the way it works: Democracies are more like gardens than edifices. 

Now is a time for more tending. Together. 

Nick Penniman is the founder and CEO of Issue One, the leading crosspartisan political reform organization in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It.”

Tags Ben Sasse bipartisan Congress Election Glenn Youngkin Joe Manchin John Thune Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Nick Penniman Roy Blunt Thom Tillis Voting voting rights

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