Pragmatism versus ambition on voting rights

Meanwhile, about the actual legislation on whether its worth ending the filibuster, David Leonhardt frames this as the ambitious (and unrealistic) versus pragmatic approach.  You know which side I’m on.  Also, for the record, nobody has been more consistently sounding the alarm about the dangers to American elections than Rick Hasen and he is decidedly in the pragmatic camp:

Today, we walk you through the case being made by each side in the debate — as well as the latest news, including Biden’s speech yesterday, delivered at a group of historically Black colleges in Atlanta.

1. Be ambitious

The major recent voting legislation from congressional Democrats has focused more on the first category.

The House last year passed a sweeping bill that would, among other things, mandate automatic voter registration, ban partisan gerrymandering and expand early voting. A compromise bill, favored by Senator Joe Manchin, would include narrower versions of many such ideas, as well as a voter-identification requirement, which is a Republican priority.

Some voting-rights advocates favor an ambitious approach that combines these ideas with attempts to crack down on Trump-like subversion of vote counting. “It’s all one related attack,” Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice told us. “It’s not enough to just stop the attempt to sabotage at the very end of the process if the process is being undermined at every other phase.”

One rationale: It remains unclear whether Republicans will agree to any voting-rights bill. If Democrats have to pass a bill along partisan lines, according to this view, they should pass the best, broadest bill, one that does everything possible to protect basic rights.

American democracy is facing “an existential crisis,” The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. has written, “and it should be treated like one.”

2. Be realistic

Other voting-rights activists consider this view naïve. They say that an ambitious, partisan legislative push is doomed, given Democrats’ narrow Senate majority — and that the Trumpist threat to democracy is a true emergency.

Our colleague Nate Cohn, who covers elections, calls the possibility of election subversion “the most insidious and serious threat to democracy.” Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told us, “This is a house-on-fire moment, and the priority should be trying to find bipartisan paths toward compromise.” (In a recent Times Opinion article, Hasen wrote that Democrats have not focused enough on the threat.)

Hasen and others have suggested rewriting the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which is now fairly vague. A strengthened version of it might raise the bar for when a state legislature could declare an election to be void. It could limit the occasions to a terrorist attack or natural disaster, rather than allowing a legislature to do so by citing (often false) claims of fraud.

Recounting ballots in Georgia in 2020.Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Manchin’s compromise bill includes a couple of other ideas that voting-rights experts favor: a requirement that voting machines produce a paper ballot for every vote; and limits on when election officials can be removed from office.

Advocates of a narrower approach note that some Republicans appear willing to consider it. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, has suggested that he might be open to reforming the Electoral Count Act. Susan Collins of Maine has convened a bipartisan group to discuss electoral reform, including changes to the 1887 law. “Another issue that we’re taking a look at is how we could protect election officials from harassment,” Collins told Punchbowl News.

(Yuval Levin, a conservative policy expert, has laid out what a compromise bill might look like.)

I’m not actually sure a bipartisan compromise is even possible.  But it’s definitely worth trying.  It’s so so much more important to make sure our elections are truly administered in a fully free and fair manner than making sure voters have drop boxes or never have to show ID (I’m no fan of voter ID laws, but the evidence is quite clear that its not exactly pre Voting Rights Act stuff).  

And on the free and fair elections, I’ll close with the conclusion of that Barton Gellman article I keep pushing on you:

But then, having looked directly toward the threat on the horizon, Biden seemed to turn away, as if he doubted the evidence before his eyes. There was no appreciable call to action, save for the bare words themselves: “We’ve got to act.” Biden’s list of remedies was short and grossly incommensurate with the challenge. He expressed support for two bills—the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—that were dead on arrival in the Senate because Democrats had no answer to the Republican filibuster. He said the attorney general would double the Department of Justice staff devoted to voting-rights enforcement. Civil-rights groups would “stay vigilant.” Vice President Kamala Harris would lead “an all-out effort to educate voters about the changing laws, register them to vote, and then get the vote out.”

And then he mentioned one last plan that proved he did not accept the nature of the threat: “We will be asking my Republican friends—in Congress, in states, in cities, in counties—to stand up, for God’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote.”

So: enforcement of inadequate laws, wishful thinking about new laws, vigilance, voter education, and a friendly request that Republicans stand athwart their own electoral schemes.

Conspicuously missing from Biden’s speech was any mention even of filibuster reform, without which voting-rights legislation is doomed. Nor was there any mention of holding Trump and his minions accountable, legally, for plotting a coup. Patterson, the retired firefighter, was right to say that nobody has been charged with insurrection; the question is, why not? The Justice Department and the FBI are chasing down the foot soldiers of January 6, but there is no public sign that they are building cases against the men and women who sent them. Absent consequences, they will certainly try again. An unpunished plot is practice for the next.

Donald trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a free election a year ago. He is preparing in plain view to do it again, and his position is growing stronger. Republican acolytes have identified the weak points in our electoral apparatus and are methodically exploiting them. They have set loose and now are driven by the animus of tens of millions of aggrieved Trump supporters who are prone to conspiracy thinking, embrace violence, and reject democratic defeat. Those supporters, Robert Pape’s “committed insurrectionists,” are armed and single-minded and will know what to do the next time Trump calls upon them to act.

Democracy will be on trial in 2024. A strong and clear-eyed president, faced with such a test, would devote his presidency to meeting it. Biden knows better than I do what it looks like when a president fully marshals his power and resources to face a challenge. It doesn’t look like this.

The midterms, marked by gerrymandering, will more than likely tighten the GOP’s grip on the legislatures in swing states. The Supreme Court may be ready to give those legislatures near-absolute control over the choice of presidential electors. And if Republicans take back the House and Senate, as oddsmakers seem to believe they will, the GOP will be firmly in charge of counting the electoral votes.

Against Biden or another Democratic nominee, Donald Trump may be capable of winning a fair election in 2024. He does not intend to take that chance.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Pragmatism versus ambition on voting rights

  1. Roi Bailey says:

    Due from Supreme Court to the case words

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