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I wish I could tell you I was feeling optimistic. I wish that – a year and two days after the January 6th insurrection — some element of a solution to our current crisis has presented itself. It hasn’t. As Democrats and Republicans in Congress move farther and farther apart — and factions within each party move farther from each other — no large-scale policy has come to fruition that would strengthen elections across America, restore trust to the electoral system, or prevent another insurrection.
One of the obstacles to progress was made clear this week during a debate about the Democrats’ efforts to reform voting. I was on NPR’s 1A, where I said Democrats were making perfection the enemy of good with their singular focus on a pair of voting rights bills. The next day, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) — one of the leading proponents of voting reform legislation — was asked to respond to my observation. She didn’t have a direct answer. She said, for example, that the Freedom to Vote Act — which comes in at a whopping 600 pages — was a “very focused approach” to our current predicament. She also acknowledged that not a single Republican would support the measure, and that Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) have signaled no willingness to support filibuster reform. Still, she said she was confident it would pass.
That confidence doesn’t square with the political reality that she knows to be true. And a change in that reality is unlikely in the future because of the approaching midterms, when Democrats will almost certainly lose seats, making reform even less of a possibility.
Democrats’ calculus got even more complex this week, when party leaders refused to even consider the Republicans’ offer to work on reforms to the Electoral Count Act. “The Electoral Count Act [reform] says you can rig the elections any way you want and then we’ll count it accurately,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said in an interview with Politico. That characterization leaves out a lot of important context and minimizes a widely recognized need across the political spectrum for the reforms.
The Electoral Count Act — which dictates how electoral college votes are cast and objected to — was written in 1875. It is alarmingly broad, and provides almost no specific details for why an objection might be offered. It is this lack of specificity that allowed Republican senators like Josh Hawley (Missouri) and Ted Cruz (Texas) to flout American norms and demean our democratic process. Fixing this could be priority number one for Democrats, and it is still unclear why they are not embracing the offer by Republican leadership to tackle this issue.
The Democratic bills on voting are not — simply are not — moving forward. Yet the Democrats are not pursuing any alternatives, even as other options to strengthen elections exist.
“Democrats have not prioritized dealing with election subversion,” University of California at Irvine law professor Rick Hasen told me. “They wasted many months pushing H.R. 1 when there was a moment for at least some Republican support for anti-subversion legislation. Of course, Republicans have been far worse, either parroting Trump’s Big Lie or afraid to stand up to him (with a few notable exceptions).”
Derek Muller, a professor at the University of Iowa’s law school, agreed. “The voting bills in Congress don’t prevent riots at the Capitol, and they aren’t targeted at improving Capitol security,” he said.
He points out that there are elements of the bills, “such as requiring paper ballots, encouraging risk-limiting audits, increasing funding to states to modernize election equipment, and increasing online access to voting materials—that could dramatically improve security and confidence in elections with bipartisan support.” But, there seems to be no appetite among Democratic leaders to offer a narrower bill or bipartisan measures, even as they’ve repeatedly failed to convince every member of their own party of the inherent usefulness of the broader legislation.
It has been a year since hundreds of violent radicals stormed the seat of American democracy. Since then, elections have been left vulnerable by the very people who have the power to protect them; former President Trump has continued his campaign of misinformation; and Congress has enacted no new policy to help prevent a repeat insurrection.
With such high stakes facing the country, small achievable measures might be more effective at preserving democracy than hopeless ambitions.
We aren’t going to turn the clock back very far today – just about a year and what a difference a year can make. In the immediate wake of the attack on the Capitol, numerous high-profile Republicans spoke out against the violence. Vice President Mike Pence said: “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.” A year later, in comments on Fox News, he downplayed the attack on democracy and said he was focused on looking forward. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-California), the House minority leader, said on Jan. 6, 2021 that “the president bears responsibility” for the “attack on Congress by mob rioters.” This week, he and others laid the responsibility for the overtake of the Capitol on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-California) feet. Last year, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) appeared to cut ties with the president on the floor of the Senate. “Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view, he’s been a consequential President, but today, first thing you’ll see. All I can say is count me out. Enough is enough,” he said. But this week? He called President Joe Biden’s speech a “brazen politicization of January 6.” And perplexingly added, “I wonder if the Taliban who now rule Afghanistan with al-Qaeda elements present, contrary to President Biden’s beliefs, are allowing this speech to be carried?”
In Other Voting News
- President Joe Biden’s speech delivered at the Capitol Rotunda on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol is worth reading. “We saw it with our own eyes. Rioters menaced these halls, threatening the life of the Speaker of the House, literally erecting gallows to hang the Vice President of the United States of America,” he said. A good reminder for everyone of how close the country came to even more tragedy.
- In a statement signed by members of Black Voters Matter Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the New Georgia Project Action Fund and the GALEO Impact Action Fund, activists have asked the Administration that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris not visit Georgia next week unless they have a firm plan to pass voting legislation. “Georgia voters made history and made their voices heard, overcoming obstacles, threats, and suppressive laws to deliver the White House and the U.S. Senate,” the statement said. “In return, a visit has been forced on them, requiring them to accept political platitudes and repetitious, bland promises. Such an empty gesture, without concrete action, without signs of real, tangible work, is unacceptable.”
- Voting rights legislation may be indefinitely stalled in Congress, but New Mexico isn’t waiting. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) have introduced a proposal to, among other things, allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections and restore voting rights to those convicted of a felony. Lujan Grisham said in a statement, “it is more important than ever to safeguard access to the ballot box. While voting rights are under attack across the country, New Mexico is taking every action to protect and expand them.”
- In Maine, two bills are being considered that would seek to protect the state from some of the harms wrought in the immediate aftermath of 2020. One bill would make it a felony to threaten election workers or prevent them from doing their work. Another would ban groups from out of state from conducting post-election audits.
- In Missouri, rally-goers recycled false claims about the “big lie” on Thursday. The event attracted around 100 attendees, including several Republican state representatives. Several top Missouri Republicans declined to attend including Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R). Ashcroft has however piggybacked off some of the false rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election to push an “election integrity” legislative agenda. The day before the rally, he announced the creation of a “countdown clock” to mark the number of days the Legislature has left to pass bills reflecting his agenda.
- A Republican in Nebraska has introduced a bill that would make voter fraud a felony in the state. State Sen. Tom Briese says it’s a response to Jan. 6, which showed the consequences of lack of confidence in results. Those opposed say it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
Good News of the Week
Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss have filed a second defamation lawsuit, this time against Rudy Giuliani and One American News Network, for their repeated and false claims that the mother and daughter election workers engaged in ballot fraud while counting ballots in November 2020. The suit says the pair received “an immediate onslaught of violent and racist threats and harassment” as a result of the false claims. It further says they are “afraid to live normal lives.”
On Jan. 20, I’ll join the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman in conversation with UCI law professor Rick Hasen. We’ll discuss “what role journalists can and should play in supporting free and fair elections in the United States given the risk of election subversion in light of events surrounding the 2020 election.” You can RSVP to the event here.