The voting-suppression skirmish is spinning out of control.
THE RUBBLE OF THE 2020 ELECTION has barely cooled from the firebombing it took from the Former Guy, his minions in Congress, and their lackeys in the right-wing media. And yet, even after the climactic battle has been decided, the war over the electoral process roars on.
According to the Brennan Center, as of February legislatures in 33 states were working on 165 bills to restrict voting. Measures include voter ID requirements, restricting voting periods and registration opportunities, cutting or prohibiting mail voting, on and on.
Meanwhile the House has already passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” which would expand automatic and same-day registration, early and absentee voting, and vote-by-mail. It would tighten campaign finance regulations and require greater disclosure of finances. And most significantly, it would eliminate gerrymandering, requiring states to redistrict by independent commissions.
These two opposing forces—one a widespread series of guerrilla attacks on the right to vote, the other a top-down attempt to disarm them—are bringing what used to be an ongoing cold war skirmish to the point of crisis. Progressive activists tell us that if states are allowed to pass laws limiting absentee voting and reducing the period in which voting can take place, the Democrats will never win another election. But at the same time, Republicans are similarly convinced that if H.R 1 passes, they’ll never see another electoral victory.
The fact is that H.R.1 has no chance of passing into law—not without eliminating the Senate’s filibuster rule, which carries dire risks for the future when the Republicans have congressional majorities. But the Republicans have a problem, too: H.R 1 is popular, even among Republican voters.
This rush to all-out political war feels a bit like a poker game in which each player is bluffing, raising the stakes beyond anyone’s ability to pay. What’s needed is some sort of Grand Bargain, a compromise bill that would give both sides the political cover needed to get something passed and disarm this issue. And I think a compromise could be reached that does the right thing for the country. It involves taking out the provisions of H.R 1 that make voting easier while preserving and strengthening those that make it fairer.
By way of explanation, some history. Back in the 1960s and 70s, voting day was the first Tuesday of November.* You showed up at your assigned polling place and voted. There was no early voting, no same-day registration. You had to actually be away from home to vote absentee. And when you presented yourself at the polls, you told the poll worker who you were and signed your name. In that pre-digital age, your signature was your bond.
Yet Democrats and Republicans traded election wins pretty regularly. John Kennedy won handily in terms of electoral votes in 1960. Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964 and won sizable majorities in both the House and Senate, even though he lost much of the old south that Kennedy had carried four years earlier. Richard Nixon won big in 1968, though the Democrats maintained strong majorities in both houses. Aided by cheating in 1972, he carried every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976, then lost to Ronald Reagan.
So somehow, even given the much more restricted election rules of decades past, Democrats fared pretty well. We don’t need voting to be easier to win. We don’t need mail-in ballots, nor same-day registration, nor drop boxes. We definitely don’t need the ability for third parties to collect absentee ballots, for this is the one actual case of voter fraud we’ve seen in recent years—committed by Republicans in a 2019 North Carolina congressional special election.
What we do need is for voters in every precinct to have an equal chance of casting a ballot. We need guarantees of equal numbers of polling places and voting machines per capita, of equal hours for voting, of a reasonable voting period—say, a four-day weekend—in which to vote. We need reasonable access for the disabled and the indigent. We need a paper-ballot record of every vote. And we especially need an end to gerrymandering, by which Democratic votes get packed into supermajorities in a few districts and spread into minorities across many others. And if the Republicans insist on imposing a voter ID requirement, give it to them, with the proviso that an ID is easy to obtain for everyone. After all, in the 21st Century, eyeballing signatures for verification really does seem almost comically antiquated.
Most of the fairness measures we need are contained in another bill, currently stuck in the Senate. This is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would reinstate most of the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, preventing the use of discriminatory election rules and procedures. In particular, it would empower the federal government to pre-emptively review states’ election procedures to ensure against racial bias. This is the provision of the 1965 law that kept southern states from re-imposing Jim Crow voting restrictions, but was discontinued by the Supreme Court in the Shelby case. The new bill would apply this provision to all 50 states, thereby skirting the Court’s rationale that it unduly burdened specific states.
The only thing we really need from H.R. 1 is the anti-gerrymandering provision, not only to reform elections but also to reform the way Congress operates overall. And the removal of “dark money” from PACs would be a nice bit of gravy.
*I’m going from experience here. My attempts to determine the actual voting rules in the various states during this period were not fruitful, but it seems that many of the expansions of voting access have occurred in recent years. I’d welcome corrections on this.