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The Reforms We Need to Reinvigorate American Democracy

Expanding mail-in voting, ending partisan gerrymandering, restoring the Voting Rights Act, and other much-needed fixes.
February 9, 2021
The Reforms We Need to Reinvigorate American Democracy
(Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty)

Why do so many Americans view our democracy with cynicism, despair, indifference, and contempt?

Among other reasons, because one of our major political parties makes voting harder, charges that our elections are riddled with fraud, and rigs our electoral processes to subvert the popular will.

Start with the GOP’s traditional means: strict voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise minorities and the poor. In 2013, a 5-4 Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court invalidated the principal barrier to these laws: a provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring that states with a history of voter suppression obtain federal pre-approval of changes to their voting laws.

Pending at the time were numerous voter ID laws that would disproportionately impact minorities. Immediately after the decision fourteen states—eight Southern, all but one governed by Republicans—enacted or began enforcing these laws.

In the ensuing years, courts repeatedly found these laws intentionally discriminatory. In Texas, a federal judge concluded that the legislature had acted “because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law’s detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate.” Similarly, a federal appellate court found that North Carolina’s law strove to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” because they generally favored Democrats.

The GOP’s bogus pretext was counteracting in-person voter fraud. In a scathing dissent, widely respected Judge Richard Posner demolished this excuse. At issue were Republican voter ID laws in Indiana and Wisconsin—the latter which disenfranchised an estimated 300,000 poor and minority voters. “Repeated investigations,” Posner noted, “show that there is virtually no in-person voter fraud nationally.” Elsewhere, expressing regret for a previous ruling in which he had upheld a voter ID law, Posner observed that these laws are “widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.”

Just so. After the Supreme Court’s decision, the GOP embarked on massive purges of voter rolls which, in the affected states, ran an average of 40 percent higher than in other jurisdictions.

Despite its considerable successes in disenfranchising minorities, in 2020 the GOP was overwhelmed by the largest turnout in 120 years—delivering Democrats the presidency and, albeit narrowly, both houses of Congress.

The engine was widespread voting by mail to protect public health, particularly among Democrats and independents more inclined than Republicans to worry about COVID-19. Many voters used dropboxes; others voted early.

Republicans found all this democracy upsetting. Accordingly, they have redoubled their efforts at voter suppression by weaponizing Trump’s “big lie” about massive voter fraud—which already had inspired his more enthusiastic followers to storm the Capitol and murder a policeman, and led Republican legislators to attack their erstwhile favorite, the Electoral College.

The GOP has already introduced 106 bills in 28 states to restrict voting—emphasizing battleground states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin. These laws have four main goals: limit voting by mail, pass tighter ID restrictions, hamstring voter registration, and accelerate voter purges.

RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel calls rolling back mail-in voting “absolutely an important effort.” This includes bills eliminating “no excuse” voting by mail; making it harder to obtain ballots; stiffening witness and signature-matching requirements; invalidating timely mail-in ballots received after election day; and abolishing dropboxes.

Bills in ten states, including Pennsylvania and Georgia, tighten ID requirements to the point of absurdity. The RNC, McDaniel promises, will be “taking a very heavy role” in voter purges. Other bills repeal same-day or automatic voter registration. Republicans in Arizona and Oklahoma would codify Trump’s remarkable assertion that state legislatures can reallocate electoral votes as they please.

But the GOP is leaving nothing to chance. To retake the House, it plans to build on previous successes in rigging congressional districts by perverting the decennial redistricting process.

In 2010, the GOP’s “Project Redmap” succeeded admirably. After flipping closely divided state legislatures through massive expenditures of campaign funds, Republicans proceeded to redraw congressional districts using sophisticated computer models.

By one estimate, Democrats must receive 6-7 percent more votes than Republicans nationwide just to win a majority in the House of Representatives. According to the Brennan Center, this gives the GOP a surplus of 16-17 seats, most emanating from extreme gerrymanders in Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida, all from states exclusively controlled by Republicans.

This permanent advantage defies popular trends. In 2012, Democrats won 1.4 million more votes; Republicans 33 more seats. The GOP won 51 percent of the vote in 2014, and 57 percent of the seats. The 2016 results were barely different: Republicans beat Democrats by 1.1 percent of the vote, and took 55 percent of the seats.

In the Democrats’ banner year of 2018, the AP estimates that Republicans won 16 more seats than indicated by their average share of the vote in districts nationwide. In 2020, Democrats won roughly 4.67 million more votes—and barely held their majority.

Republicans are now free to intensify these abuses. In 2019, the Supreme Court examined North Carolina’s congressional map which, in 2018, had awarded the GOP 10 of the state’s 13 congressional districts based on roughly half the vote. Nonetheless, a 5-4 Republican-appointed majority ruled that restricting gerrymandering was beyond the Court’s capacity. Having won exclusive control last November over redistricting in 18 states—including fast-growing Florida, North Carolina, and Texas—GOP cartographers can redeliver control of the House.

They won’t lack for resources. By gutting longstanding prohibitions on corporate giving, the 5-4 Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority in Citizens United enabled wealthy donors to spend an estimated $5 billion to influence elections—including “dark money” from undisclosed sources.

A 2013 study out of Princeton confirmed the unsurprising result: Economic elites succeeded getting their favored policies adopted half the time, and in stopping legislation they opposed nearly all the time. The depressing corollary was that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Indeed, Republican members of Congress expressly admitted passing Trump’s generally unpopular tax cuts for the rich because they feared alienating donors.

A true democracy does not disproportionately empower the wealthy; or prevent voting by groups targeted for partisan advantage; or undermine the popular vote by rigging electoral districts; or limit participation by deliberately making voting harder. Fortunately, there is a comprehensive answer to much of this: H.R. 1, the For the People Act.

H.R. 1 proposes to reinvigorate American democracy. It helps restore the Voting Rights Act. It provides automatic voter registration for anyone who interacts with designated government agencies, a move that could add as many as 50 million people to the voting rolls.

It protects mail-in voting by extending it to every eligible voter; allowing voters to request mail-in ballots online or by phone; requiring states to send mail-in ballots five business days prior to the election to any voter who requests one; directing states to count any ballot postmarked by election day if received within 10 days thereafter; and mandating states to accept ballots at designated drop-off locations, or at polling places during early voting or on election day.

Further, it establishes same-day and online registration, and nationwide early voting. It curbs indiscriminate voting purges. Critically, it reinforces integrity in vote-counting by requiring a paper record of any vote cast—an answer to Trump’s baseless claims that voting machines were rigged.

It ends partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to use independent redistricting commissions in drawing up congressional maps. It combats the undue influence of big money in politics through a robust public-financing system that matches donations up to $200 at a 6 to 1 ratio—enabling candidates to fund their campaign exclusively from small donors. Finally, it requires disclosure of all groups which have provided major campaign funding.

While it does not solve every problem, H.R. 1 could reinvigorate our democracy and help restore the public’s flagging faith. We’re close: In 2019 House Democrats passed it before Mitch McConnell kept the bill from coming to the Senate floor.

In 2021 all that can prevent reform from becoming reality is a Republican filibuster—and two Democratic senators. To date Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to join the bare majority required to abolish a hoary instrument of obstruction which McConnell uses to suffocate any legislation that Republicans or their donor class dislike.

The case of H.R. 1 exposes that the time is swiftly coming for these senators to reconsider. By requiring both parties to compete in an equitable and representative system, under a common set of rules, the bill would compel them to address the entire electorate instead of catering to extremes. And extinguishing the filibuster would impel senators to actually pass legislation, as opposed to showboating, catering to donors, and making absurd proposals that will never become law. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.

Eulogizing John Lewis by calling for the renewal of voting rights, Barack Obama said “if all this takes is eliminating the filibuster—another Jim Crow relic—in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”


Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.