Ask a Scientist: How to Thwart Threats to Democracy

September 8, 2022 | 10:00 am
Michael Fleshman/Flickr
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

An NBC News poll released last month generated quite a bit of attention, and for good reason. It found that “threats to democracy” have overtaken the “cost of living” as voters’ top concern. The 21 percent of the respondents who cited those threats as the “most important issue facing the country” included 29 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans. Putting aside that a certain percentage of those Republicans believe the false claim there was widespread voter fraud last election, it is eye-opening vox pop.

NBC News conducted the survey in mid-August, just days after the FBI searched former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for classified documents, and a month after the House January 6 committee held its most recent hearing. Add to that the steady drumbeat of stories about states instituting voter suppression laws, the recent US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, and Trump allies running for state and federal office, and it is no surprise that threats to democracy are uppermost in many people’s minds.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) took up the critical issue of voting rights as a part of its agenda in 2018 when Michael Latner, a political science professor at California Polytechnic State University, came on board as our first Kendall fellow to focus on scientific integrity and bias in US voting systems. Earlier this year, Latner, a senior fellow with the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, joined more than a dozen other scholars, election experts and advocates to co-author a UCS report, Achieving Multiracial, Multiparty Democracy, which offered recommendations for institutional reforms and building a pro-democracy movement.

I spoke with Professor Latner recently and asked him to provide some details about what constitutes these threats to democracy and what he and his colleagues see as viable solutions to save it. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: First, it would be helpful to remind readers how we got here. How are states that historically suppressed the vote, which were blocked from doing so by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, now able to revert to their formerly undemocratic ways?

ML: In 2013, the Supreme Court issued its Shelby County v. Holder decision, which is why we’re talking about this today. The ruling essentially eviscerated a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring states that had a long history of denying Black citizens’ voting rights to submit any proposed new voting laws to the Justice Department for review. The Justice Department would then either “preclear” that law and allow the state to enact it, or reject it and direct the state to either revise it or simply not enact. The Shelby decision did away with that preclearance requirement, ostensibly because it was no longer necessary.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg strongly opposed the decision, and she made an apt analogy in her dissent. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes,” she said, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

After the Shelby decision, there was an explosion of onerous state voter ID laws and other initiatives to block the vote. States purged voting rolls and closed polling places, especially in Black and Brown neighborhoods.

But it isn’t just a problem in states that were previously covered under the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision. Restrictive election laws are popping up in a number of battleground states where reactionary state legislatures are insulating themselves from public accountability. Voters in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, just to name a few, can no longer hold their legislatures accountable because the Republicans in control of those statehouses have rewritten the election rules to maintain their advantage.

The Supreme Court bears a lot of responsibility for this constitutional crisis. A series of controversial decisions besides Shelby has effectively neutered the Voting Rights Act. Altogether, the impact of these decisions has been profound. Back in 2016, when I cowrote my first book on gerrymandering, my coauthors and I warned of a smoldering constitutional crisis where gerrymandered state legislatures would be able to determine the composition of the US House of Representatives in clear violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers between state and the federal governments. It is safe to say that this crisis is no longer smoldering. We have a four-alarm fire on our hands, with the distinct possibility that state legislatures will try to subvert the 2024 presidential election.

EN: Thanks to the Supreme Court, some state lawmakers are now hellbent on suppressing the vote. Are there any particular regions of the country where lawmakers are more likely to restrict voting?

ML: Restrictive election laws and gerrymandering are concentrated where there is capacity—when one party controls the process of making election law—and motivation—where the stakes are substantial, especially for presidential elections. As a consequence, we see more attempts to restrict voting in states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas. But there are many other states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where legislators are trying to pass extreme laws, and there are jurisdictions all across the country where folks who falsely claim the last presidential election was illegitimate are running for, or attempting to be appointed to, elective office.

EN: State legislators blocking the vote are getting a lot of encouragement from some rightwing organizations, including the Conservative Partnership Institute’s Election Integrity Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is working hand-in-hand with the misleadingly named Honest Elections Project and Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. I went into some detail about ALEC’s links with the Honest Elections Project and Heritage Action in a June column. What can you tell us about the Conservative Partnership Institute?

ML: The Conservative Partnership Institute was founded by former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint in 2017 after he was ousted as president of the Heritage Foundation. The organization’s staff includes former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Cleeta Mitchell, the Trump attorney who was on the phone with the former president when he pressed Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to secure a Trump election victory in the state. Mitchell is a longtime election conspiracy theorist who has worked with the likes of Hans von Spakovsky from the Heritage Foundation and other Trump apologists who have made careers off of convincing susceptible people to open their wallets to stop non-existent election fraud.

Mitchell heads the institute’s Election Integrity Network project, which plans to recruit thousands of people who subscribe to the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen to volunteer as polling place workers in Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and other Democratic-majority cities, what Trump strategist Steve Bannon calls the “precinct strategy.” Mitchell’s team also is organizing teams of lawyers and building relationships with police chiefs and district attorneys in preparation for a massive vote-challenging campaign.

The Election Integrity Network’s goal is to foment chaos in heavily Democratic—and let’s be honest, disproportionately Black—voting precincts. If it can gum up the electoral process, and create enough controversy over ballot certification, it will provide an opportunity for GOP-controlled legislatures in swing states to intervene and possibly determine election outcomes.

I am especially concerned about the project’s coordination with local law enforcement, which election agencies relied on in numerous cities to protect them from violent Trump supporters in 2020. A far-right conspiracy group, True the Vote, also is coordinating with sheriffs and police officers across the country to, in the words of Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Lamb, “not let happen what happened in 2020.” State-sanctioned violence against Black voters is a tragic and recurring pattern in US history that could well become more widespread this fall and beyond.

EN: What is Congress doing to address this problem? Last year, I interviewed Taryn MacKinney, a UCS colleague at the time, about four bills in Congress that would go a long way to protect voters’ rights: the For the People Act, the Fair Representation Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the Washington, D.C., Admission Act. Now there’s another bill in play that would reform the antiquated Electoral Count Act, which is from 1887. What is the status of these bills? Do any of them have a chance of passing?

ML: In the aftermath of the January 6 committee hearings, there has been movement in Congress to update the Electoral Count Act, which would specify the vice president’s procedural role, remove some of the discretion that state legislatures have to overturn the will of their own voters, and the like. It should be Congress’ top priority. However, passing a bill that updates the Electoral Count Act would still leave in place restrictive election laws that have been implemented in several states, including illegal redistricting plans that will influence the outcome of this year’s elections.

Congress should not only pass the four bills you mentioned, it also should pass—and the president should sign—the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022. It would require federal law enforcement agencies—Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI—to establish initiatives to combat domestic terrorism and, in particular, white supremacy-based hate crimes and acts of terror, including anti-Black violence, voter intimidation, and Election Day coercion.

At this point, it is unlikely that any of these bills—besides the Electoral Count Act update—will ever make it to President Biden’s desk. The grim reality is that there is no pro-democracy movement to support more comprehensive reform, even within the Democratic Party. That’s the main reason that the UCS Center for Science and Democracy is focusing its efforts on building such a movement. If we want to save our democracy, all nonprofit public interest organizations at the local, state, and national level, no matter what issues they primarily work on, have to become pro-democracy organizations. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.

EN: What about the folks who don’t work for such organizations? There’s an old saying: Democracy is not a spectator sport. If everyday people don’t participate, it could very well die. So if there is no guarantee that any of these voter protection bills in Congress will ever become law, what can people do as “public” citizens to safeguard voting rights and protect democracy?

ML: If Congress fails to even pass a revised Electoral Count Act, I would say our democracy is in grave danger. But whether or not we pull off free and fair elections in the near future, or fall into some period of autocratic rule—which is quite plausible—the way out of this crisis remains the same: civic action. UCS supporters can start by contacting their local election office to find out who their administrators are and ask them how they can help ensure a fair and accurate election outcome. Depending on one’s skill set, experience, and capacity, there are a variety of roles that one can play, from planning and emergency management, and database management and processing, to regularly updating public election information and publicizing election forensics, all of which I explain in detail in a blog I posted in July titled “How the Science Community Can Secure our Democracy.”

Beyond lending professional skills to a campaign to protect of democracy, I’d encourage all of our supporters to work with community organizations and nonprofits that are canvassing door-to-door and organizing in low-turnout precincts. We need to do a lot more than just mobilize voters who are already likely to turn out. To build a pro-democracy movement in this country, which is what has to happen to put our democracy back on track, it is going to take the blood, sweat, and tears of a broad and diverse coalition committed to expanding the rule of law and political equality to keep the United States on a path to realize its potential as a democracy. This is our generational moment.