Today Senators Clinton, Boxer and Kerry, along with Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, held a press conference to unveil an ambitious and very comprehensive election reform proposal, which they want enacted in time for the 2006 mid-term balloting. Thank God they moved quickly on this idea, instead of letting the memories of a second straight presidential election nearly winding up in the courts fade.The proposal itself is pretty far-reaching, including (1) making Election Day a federal holiday, (2) creating uniform rules for handling of provisional ballots, (3) requiring early voting opportunities, along with no-questions-asked absentee balloting, (4) boosting training for poll workers, (5) criminalizing voter intimidation tactics, (6) restoring voting rights for former felons, (7) requiring paper receipts for electronic voting machines, and (8) providing the federal funds to make sure this reform isn’t as shoddily impemented as its predecessor, the Help America Vote Act.The only quibble I have about the specifics of the proposal is that the sponsors should make sure to provide some leeway from the more prescriptive features of the bill for states with an exemplary record of fair and voter-friendly election administration. I’m thinking of Oregon, whose excellent administration of an all-mail-ballot system has produced remarkable voter turnout levels with virtually no complaints. And I’m also thinking of my home state of Georgia, where Secretary of State Cathy Cox (who may well be the Democratic candidate for governor in ’06) has done the best possible job of implementing a statewide touch-screen system. Yeah, I know, Diebold Conspiracy theorists don’t like that, but as Sam Rosenfeld recently explained in The American Prospect, Georgians seem to love the new system, and there have been no allegations of fraud or other irregularities there.The Diebold reference leads me to another point about election reform: Democrats need to go to considerable lengths to establish that this issue is not just about Democratic complaints concerning the outcome of the last two presidential elections, and that supporting election reform does not mean endorsing the views of those who believe the whole system has been completely rigged. Why? Because unlike a lot of Democratic proposals these days, this is one that we actually need to get enacted into law, because it will materially improve our chances of winning elections. And given the broad popularity of most of the election reforms contained in the new proposal, there is actually a fair chance that some if not most Republicans can be coerced, shamed or otherwise stampeded into going along. We definitely need to give it a shot, and keeping the message of election reform on a higher, nonpartisan, “good government” plane is essential to that task. If it doesn’t work, then fine, we can go after the GOP hammer-and-tongs at that point.Beyond that, I hope Democrats who embrace election reform are willing to link this issue to a broader political reform agenda: redistricting reform, lobbying reform, corporate subsidy reform, budget reform, ethics reform, and a recommitment to campaign finance reform. The current system ain’t benefitting Democrats, and ain’t benefitting the country, so we should throw caution to the wind and make it definitively clear that there’s little about the current system we are not willing to take a serious look at and, if appropriate, change.So: I enthusiastically applaud the sponsors of the Count Every Vote Act as trailblazers in what we can only hope will be a whole new theme in Democratic politics from Washington to every state and city. And I hope those bloggers who like to call themselves “Reform Democrats” will get specific about what that means and weigh in with what JFK used to call “great vigor.”
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.