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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: For Dems, It May Be the Last Chance to Secure Voting Rights

Ronald Brownstein warns “Democrats’ Only Chance to Stop the GOP Assault on Voting Rights: If the party doesn’t pass new protections, it could lose the House, Senate, and White House within the next four years” at The Atlantic. As Brownstein sets the stage:

“The most explosive battle in decades over access to the voting booth will reach a new crescendo this week, as Republican-controlled states advance an array of measures to restrict the ballot, and the U.S. House of Representatives votes on the federal legislation that represents Democrats’ best chance to stop them.

It’s no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary. To many civil-rights advocates and democracy scholars I’ve spoken with, this new wave of state-level bills constitutes the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot.

“This is a huge moment,” Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, told me. “This harkens to pre-segregation times in the South, and it goes to the core question of how we define citizenship and whether or not all citizens actually will have access to fully engage and participate.”

Brownstein adds, “In Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana, Republican governors and legislators are moving forward bills that would reduce access to voting by mail, limit early voting, ban ballot drop boxes, inhibit voter-registration drives, and toughen identification requirements—measures inspired by the same discredited claims of election fraud that Donald Trump pushed after his 2020 loss.”

Worse, “The Supreme Court’s 6–3 conservative majority is unlikely to block many, or perhaps any, of these state laws. Also, “Federal courts are unlikely to step in: Although the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the far-fetched efforts of Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election, under Chief Justice John Roberts, the conservative Court majority has consistently refused to block state limits on voting access or to prevent partisan gerrymanders. Critics argue that in the Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, Roberts fired the starting gun for the current barrage of voter-suppression measures—by eviscerating the provision of the original VRA that required states with a history of discrimination to receive “preclearance” from the Justice Department for changes in their voting laws.”

Further, “Democrats may have a single realistic opportunity to resist not only these proposals, but also GOP plans to institute severe partisan congressional gerrymanders in many of the same states. That opportunity: using Democrats’ unified control of Washington to establish national election standards—by passing the omnibus election-reform bill known as H.R. 1, which is scheduled for a House vote today, and the new Voting Rights Act, which is expected to come to the floor later this year.” Also,

Democrats may have only a brief window in which to block these state-level GOP maneuvers. Typically, the president’s party loses House and Senate seats in the first midterm election after his victory. Democrats will face even worse odds if Republicans succeed in imposing restrictive voting laws or gerrymandering districts in the GOP’s favor across a host of red states.

If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats—and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws.

“There’s an increasing appreciation,” Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, H.R. 1’s chief sponsor, told me, that “if we can’t get these changes in place in time for the 2022 midterm election, the efforts that Republicans are taking at the state level to lock in this voter-suppression regime” and maximize their advantage via partisan gerrymanders “will reshape the environment in a way that makes it impossible to get this, or frankly many other things, done.”

Democrats have the votes to pass the House version of the legislation. But the Senate will be a closer vote, with the fate of the filibuster as the pivotal factor. “Senate Republicans are likely to try to kill these bills with a filibuster,” Brownstein writes. “Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the principal sponsor of H.R. 1’s Senate analogue, has been urging his colleagues to consider ending the filibuster for these bills alone, even if they are unwilling to end it for all legislation. But so far, at least two Democrats remain resistant to curtailing the filibuster in any way: Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.”

“If nothing else,’ says Brownstein, “the GOP’s boldness can leave Democrats with little doubt about what they can expect in the years ahead if they do not establish nationwide election standards. “This is a very brazen effort by lawmakers across the country to enact provisions that make it harder for Americans to vote,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice who is tracking the GOP’s state-level measures, told me. “There is no subtlety and no attempt to obfuscate what is going on here.” In addition, “In its latest tally, the Brennan Center counts 253 separate voter-suppression proposals pending in 43 states. That’s significantly more than the number of bills it tracked after the 2010 election—180 bills, in 41 states—when significant GOP gains in the states triggered a similar wave of laws.”

But “H.R. 1 would reverse many of the restrictive policies advancing in red states. As I wrote recently, the bill would require all states to provide online, automatic, and same-day registration; ensure at least 15 days of in-person early voting; provide all voters with access to no-excuse, postage-free absentee ballots; and offer drop boxes where they can return those ballots. It would also end gerrymandering by requiring every state to create independent commissions for congressional redistricting and by defining national criteria to govern the process.” Additionally,

Against the backdrop of the red-state voting offensive, the fate of H.R. 1 looks like a genuine inflection point. If Democrats can’t persuade Manchin, Sinema, and any other filibuster proponents to kill the parliamentary tool, Senate Republicans will be able to shield their state-level allies from federal interference. And that could produce a widening divergence between elections in red and blue states—as well as a lasting disadvantage for Democrats in the battle for control of Congress. Such a chasm will fuel “competing narratives that are inherently corrosive and destructive,” Sarbanes told me. “The more you have this bifurcated system of how elections are conducted in this country, the more oxygen you are going to give to some of the conspiracy theories that come from the other side.”

Yet even that equilibrium—with blue states expanding the franchise and red states restricting it—might not be stable. First, voter-suppression laws and gerrymanders in red states could help Republicans regain one or both congressional chambers in 2022. Then, efforts to restrict the vote could help Republicans recapture the presidency in 2024. Today, Democratic governors in key swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—can block any restrictive laws, but if the party loses any of those governorships in 2022, it’ll be virtually powerless to stop new voter-suppression efforts from the Republican-controlled state legislatures.

In that nightmare scenario for Democrats, new laws across the Rust Belt, combined with what’s already happening in Arizona and Georgia, would put enough states at risk to seriously endanger Democratic hopes of holding the White House in 2024. If Republicans win unified control of the White House and Congress that year, they could try to set national voting standards that impose the red-state voting rules on blue states. Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida, for instance, has already proposed legislation that would bar all states from offering automatic voter registration and using drop boxes, and would require them to adopt stiff voter-ID rules. In his speech to CPAC on Sunday, Trump also called for establishing a national voter-ID requirement, as well as rules banning early voting and most mail balloting.

Brownstein concludes, quoting Sen. Sarbanes: “This isn’t just about trying to do something now that we can do later. This is about doing something now that we may not get the chance to do again for another 50 years.” Democrats face an unforgiving equation: a fleeting window in which to act, and potentially lasting consequences if they don’t. “If you look at all the stakes that are involved,” Sarbanes continued, “the notion that you would miss this opportunity becomes incomprehensible.”

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