Congress failed to pass voting rights legislation but we can still save our democracy
The battle over the 2020 election may be behind us, but the war over our nation’s democracy is escalating. In just the first month of 2022, Congress failed to advance federal election reform, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) tried to set a trend with his proposed “election police force,” and election deniers lined up to fill election administration offices up and down the ballot. In fact, one of those deniers — a gubernatorial candidate in Michigan — urged supporters to “show up armed” at the polls.
The threat to our nation’s democracy is the most critical and urgent issue of our time. While the inability to pass critical protections at the federal level is disheartening, as three veteran public servants with decades of experience in the states, we still see a path forward for free and fair elections.
Elections are national events that are led and run by the states. Democracy prevailed in 2020 because in the face of lies, threats and intimidation, state and local leaders on both sides of the aisle did the right thing. They can and will do so again in 2022, 2024 and beyond — but only if we can develop a nonpartisan, pro-democracy coalition to support them.
We are heading into this election year fully aware of the lengths to which bad actors will go to seize power. The anti-democracy playbook is simple: Change the rules and change the referees, in order to change the results.
Democracy can survive this challenging moment, as it has so many times throughout history, if we, as Americans, are willing to put in the work to protect it.
That means pushing pro-democracy policies in state houses across the country, even as we oppose bills that seek to hijack our elections and suppress the vote. There are opportunities in red and blue states alike to improve access to the ballot box and strengthen our elections. In the last several years, Kentucky, Nevada, Michigan and others moved to expand the freedom to vote, including provisions on vote-by-mail and drop boxes.
The legislative work is only possible if we continue to support the work of state and local officials. They are upholding the will of American voters and promoting the truth under intense pressure and unprecedented threats. With extreme candidates who promote lies about our elections running for positions across our country, it’s never been more important to elect leaders from both sides of the aisle who respect the rule of law and the will of the voters.
Our trusted, nonpartisan election officials also need support from the Department of Justice (DOJ). Unlike in 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice is poised to be a powerful ally in the fight to protect democracy. The DOJ has made it a priority to protect the public servants who oversee our elections, and it is absolutely critical that the DOJ now delivers on that promise. The first arrests made in Texas and Nevada for election-related threats are the kind of action we need.
On the legal side, in 2020, we saw a groundswell of legal experts, nonprofits and pro bono law firms step up to prevent President Trump from overturning the election. If 2021 was any indication, lawyers will continue to play an integral role in keeping our system of checks and balances intact. Many organizations are already taking action to protect our election integrity, including States United.
Finally, we must continue to fight for justice and truth when it comes to the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Accountability is a strong deterrent, and it can come from the states. In Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis just got the green light for a special grand jury to continue her probe into the call Trump placed to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging the official to “find” more votes for him. Novel efforts such as the one by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine to hold the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers responsible for the attack on the Capitol can shine a spotlight on bad actors and drain their coffers. Investigations of attempts to send fake electors or to rig elections in the states must also continue.
There are no shortcuts to saving democracy. It’s a battle we must wage daily, on many fronts. This work will not be defined by one victory, one defeat, one election or one bill. It is rooted in the sustained, informed engagement of citizens and leaders committed to lifting every voice, protecting every vote and holding our elected leaders accountable. As we enter another intense year, the question is not whether we will prevail, but how. That starts with the states.
Jocelyn Benson is Michigan’s secretary of State.
Joanna Lydgate is CEO of States United Action, a nonpartisan organization advancing free, fair, and secure elections.
Christine Todd Whitman is the former governor of New Jersey and States United co-chair.