In the 2020 presidential election, more than 158 million Americans cast ballots and shattered voter turnout records. We’ve all kind of normalized that fact, but we forget that this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Last spring and summer, the big fear among election watchers was that COVID might prevent people from going to the polls.
Happily, everything turned out fine. In the end, COVID increased awareness about the need to make a plan to vote. Many states expanded options to make it easier to vote by mail, utilize drop boxes, and/or vote early in-person. Tens of millions of people took advantage of those offerings. And by all measures, 2020 was one of the safest and most secure elections in our nation’s history, even while having the biggest turnout ever and taking place amid a deadly pandemic.
What sort of worldview must you have to view this as anything but a resounding success? What sort of person would look at 2020 and, instead of wanting to perfect and expand these procedures, would want to go back in time?
These questions answer themselves.
If you value more voter participation, then you want more Americans to have access to the voting options that worked so successfully in 2020. If you prefer lower voter participation, then you want those options either rescinded or restricted. This isn’t rocket science.
Also not rocket science: It’s clear that one of our country’s two political parties overtly prefers less voter participation and so, as a consequence, is now actively pursuing avenues designed to reduce—or suppress, or depress, or whatever perfectly non-judgmental verb you’d like to use—the number of votes cast in future elections.
Republican lawmakers, still testifying to lies about a “stolen” election from 2020 loser Donald Trump, are currently advancing hundreds of bills on the state level to restrict voting rights in the name of restoring “election integrity.” Go ahead and take a look at some of these “integrity-filled” proposals.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, having avoided a lynching by Trump supporters on January 6, has decided to use the fight for “election integrity” as his way back to the warm embrace of MAGA. He emerged from his new post at the Heritage Foundation to announce that “Voter Integrity Is a National Imperative” at the same moment that Heritage Action plans to spend $10 million to tighten election laws in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin.
But what exactly does “election integrity” mean to Mike Pence and those pushing restrictionist laws? For the MAGA crowd, it’s code for eliminating “fraud.” No matter that Trump’s Attorney General Bill Barr said, “There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.” Or that officials at Trump’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised,” and the election was “the most secure in American history.”
Pence’s piece is a work of art, designed to simultaneously appease both his lawyers and the QAnon chat boards. He writes, “Many of the most troubling voting irregularities took place in states that set aside laws enacted by state legislatures in favor of sweeping changes ordered by governors, secretaries of state, and courts.” He doesn’t say what these “irregularities” were exactly. Or mention that the “sweeping changes” were made to ensure the election would go smoothly during the pandemic. Which it did.
The only thing that was “irregular,” as Pence puts it, was the exceptionally high number of Americans who voted. Against him.
The plain fact is that more Americans voted against Trump and Pence—both singularly in 2020 and cumulatively in combination with 2016—than any other ticket in the long history of our nation. That’s the real problem Republicans have with the 2020 election.
Democrats countered with HR 1, legislation that would make 2020 voting features permanent, but also goes much further in giving the federal government a heavy hand in dictating the way campaigns and elections are funded and conducted.
And so a showdown lies ahead about our democracy’s most fundamental question: How will we vote?
Pre-insurrection this debate may have seemed abstract. But, now it will take place in the buildings where windows are still cracked from the rioters who stormed the Capitol with the explicit purpose of blocking the counting of Electoral College votes to certify Joe Biden’s victory. The FBI is still searching for the person who placed pipe bombs around Capitol Hill ahead of the event. New charges against insurrectionists are being filed daily. The idea that people would resort to violence to cancel votes and steal an election is a reality.
Remember, the mob was not alone in their desires to overturn election results: 147 Republican lawmakers objected to Biden’s Electoral College votes even after the mob was put down. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit to cancel votes in swing states that Trump lost was widely supported: 17 GOP attorneys general and 126 Republicans in Congress filed briefs of support. A slew of established conservative activists and think tank leaders called on GOP state legislators in Biden-winning states to “exercise their plenary power” to “reject any competing slates in favor of Vice President Biden.” Additionally, the Trump campaign mounted dozens of failed lawsuits—in addition to other, extra-legal, pressure campaigns—to block Biden’s votes from being counted. The former president is currently under criminal investigation in Georgia for his attempts to induce officials into “finding” enough votes to overcome Biden’s winning margin.
Nor was this a coup conducted solely by party elites. Among Republican voters the attempts to stop the counting of Biden votes was popular. And even now, months later, the party’s autocratic impulses remain very much alive.
So how is it, exactly, that Democrats are supposed to have a reasonable, good-faith negotiation concerning voting rights with a party that worked aggressively to overturn Biden’s free and fair victory? No wonder progressives are eager to do plow forward and abolish the filibuster to pass the bill.
Because it is not clear that there is any way to get 10 Republican senators on board with any voting rights bill. It’s not because of any specific objections to this or that part of HR 1. It’s because, writ large, Democrats and Republicans do not have the same interests when it comes to the act of voting. One party wants to make it easier to vote. The other is on record trying to stop opposition votes from being counted at all. When those are the parameters of the voting rights debate, there’s no room for compromise. There’s nothing to discuss.
The best hope for pro-democracy conservatives, uneasy with totally abolishing the filibuster, is to push for filibuster-weakening measures, and advocate that the most objectionable (and possibly unconstitutional) aspects of the bill be stripped out.
Because with the stakes what they are following the 2020 election, it’s tough to make a good case as to why Democrats should let the authoritarians in the GOP filibuster democracy itself.