At The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews Wendy Weiser, vice-president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice on the topic, “Is There a Future for Voting-Rights Reform?” Some excerpts:
What went wrong in terms of Democratic strategy?
I think that this was a significant failure in the Senate, but I think that it has also advanced the ball for protecting voting rights, and it is not the end of the battle. I do think that pushing for this vote and this legislative agenda was absolutely the right thing to do. Congress could not stand by while our voting rights and our democratic institutions were under such brazen assault. There is a moral obligation to act, and Congress also has an obligation to voters—especially voters of color—to stand up for these rights. It has an obligation to try to check these abuses that have been tearing across the country at a very rapid pace, and in very large numbers. And I do think that, the more that these abuses of our voting rights and our democratic institutions go unanswered, the worse and more brazen the attacks become.
Do you think Democrats have overemphasized the threat of voter suppression and underemphasized the threat of election subversion?
I think the threat is multifaceted, and I think there is both a tremendous threat of voter suppression and a tremendous threat of election subversion. We are tracking legislation on both. The voter-suppression threats have materialized already; the election-subversion attempts are still nascent.
You’ve seen some Republicans talk about reforming the Electoral Count Act in the past couple of weeks. Is there a chance for legislation around that?
The Electoral Count Act absolutely has ambiguities that need to be fixed, and, if they are addressed, that would help reduce the risk of a certain form of sabotage at the very end of Presidential elections. But what we are seeing in terms of election subversion across the country is a much broader attack on impartial election administration—one that opens the door to partisan manipulation of election outcomes and sabotage of election results in a much broader array of races, not just the Presidential race, and at many more points in the election process, not just at the finish line.
My view is that the Freedom to Vote Act is actually the strongest response that has been proposed to election subversion. It doesn’t deal with the Electoral Count Act, but for all the other forms of election subversion the strongest protection is, in fact, establishing baseline national standards for election administration and vote-counting rules and for the ways in which voters can use the court system to enforce those rules. One of the principle ways that those who are attacking our institutions from within are trying to enable election subversion is by putting partisan loyalists—who aren’t necessarily committed to the rule of law or to insuring that everyone’s votes are counted properly—in election-administration positions where they can make decisions that would subvert outcomes. And, if those positions don’t have the discretion to take actions that would suppress votes or throw out votes or refuse to certify votes, then that entire strategy can’t succeed, and is no longer worth pursuing.
Is it worth trying a bill that only focusses on election subversion?
The election-subversion bill will not look dramatically different from the Freedom to Vote Act, because to actually protect against election subversion you need to have some baseline rules for vote counting that the Freedom to Vote Act has. I think those who say that you can attack election subversion without enforcing the right to have your vote counted and having some basic level of access that every American can rely on are going to be disappointed.
An election-subversion bill also leaves another huge problem unaddressed: the gerrymandering that’s going on. In Congress, there may not currently be bipartisan support for fixing that. But there is bipartisan support in the country for addressing it. And a narrowly focussed election-subversion bill will not do so.
I think the most optimistic reading of this effort would be that there’s now more momentum, as you said, to do things like fix the Electoral Count Act. But I wonder about the message to Democratic voters and progressives that the failure of this legislation will lead to the complete erosion of American democracy.
The United States’ democracy ranking has already been downgraded by international organizations. We are in a very precarious, perilous place, and there’s a lot of risk. These are the reforms that would protect our system and turn it around and, frankly, put us in a place where the system would be stronger than it was before. The legislation to roll back voting rights or to sabotage elections has become more brazen, more aggressive, and far more numerous. I think that, if there are no brakes, this is going to continue to get worse.
Democrats are going to have to fight to get the best possible reforms of the Electoral Count Act. But hopes for voting rights reform beyond that now depend on Dems getting focused on midterm elections upsets that can win a real working majority.