How to Stop the Dismantling of Democracy

May 14, 2021
Phil Roeder/Flickr
Taryn MacKinney
Investigative Researcher

In the last few years, many elected leaders have attacked voting rights, cast doubt on free and fair elections, and served private interests over the public good. To pull American democracy back from the brink, we must use the full force of the law—and four laws will, if passed, set us on the right track.

Democracy under siege

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that it’s November 2022—election season. You’re a proud Georgian, born and raised, and you’re ready to cast your ballot. What do you do?

Well, voting is about to get harder. If you want an absentee ballot, you’ll need a state ID. If you don’t have one, too bad—and if you do, you’d better hurry: You have half the time you had before to request an absentee ballot. Did you use a ballot drop-box in 2020? Good luck finding one now. And if you do everything right—if you show up at the right polling place at the right time (easier said than done) and wait in line for hours in the sweltering Georgian heat, nobody—not your friend, neighbor, or pastor—can give you water to drink.

These are real requirements of a real law, rammed through by state legislators in March. And Georgia isn’t unique. Across the country, legislators are cracking down on voting access—slashing early voting, purging voter rolls, and closing polling sites. They do so in the name of election security, but these “reforms” are new clothes for the old Jim Crow. Rather than make elections safer and fairer, they aim to make voters whiter and wealthier.

Consider photo-ID requirements. On the surface, they might seem benign—doesn’t everybody have a photo ID? In fact, millions don’t, and Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are less likely than white people to have them. Black voters are also more likely to take advantage of early voting, and in the 2020 elections in Georgia, more Black voters relied on mail-in voting than white voters.

These legislators may feign innocence, but they know who these insidious bills will hurt: Black people, young people, urbanites, and other voters of color. In fact, that’s the point. For these officials, it’s hard to appeal to diverse constituents, and easier to keep them from voting at all.

So how do officials justify these measures? Often, with lies. By peddling falsehoods—that voter fraud is rampant (it’s not), noncitizens vote in droves (they don’t), and the 2020 election was stolen (it wasn’t)—unethical leaders can rationalize their assaults on free and fair elections. These lies have consequences, not only for those robbed of their rights, but for democracy as a whole: On January 6th, Trump supporters, wrongly convinced that Trump had won re-election, stormed the US Capitol in what many deemed an attempted coup.

But all is not lost. To restore American democracy, we must start with four laws.

The For the People Act would fundamentally overhaul the nation’s fractured election system

If enacted, the law would:

  1. Set baseline rules for ballot access everywhere. Today, states decides when and how federal elections take place, giving legislators plenty of opportunity to suppress the right to vote. The For the People Act (FtPA) would change this, making sure that all elections start with the same rules.
  2. Make it easier to vote. The FtPA would require automatic voter registration, expand early and mail-in voting, and pre-register teenagers so they’re ready to vote at 18.
  3. Buffer against voting restrictions. In many states, legislators have enacted unnecessary voter-ID laws, moved or closed polling sites, and purged voter rolls. The FtPA would prevent these and other grossly anti-democratic moves.
  4. Reduce gerrymandering. State legislators can draw political boundaries to dilute or beef up the voting power of different groups—that is, they can pick their own voters. The FtPA would curb this, instead requiring that independent commissions draw political districts.
  5. Reign in campaign financing. Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, political spending—especially by shadowy groups that don’t disclose donors—has skyrocketed. To fight this, the FtPA would strengthen the Federal Elections Commission, require publicly traded companies to disclose political spending, and introduce a voucher system that would empower voters to donate to candidates they support.
  6. Fight conflicts of interest. In 2018, Brian Kemp, a candidate for Georgia’s governorship, oversaw his own election, using his power to suppress the votes of tens of thousands of mostly Black Georgians. The FtPA would prevent egregious, racist ethics violations like this, and it would require the federal Office of Government Ethics to issue rules on addressing conflicts of interest.

The Fair Representation Act would reform winner-take-all elections

In the US today, elections aren’t competitive—in 2016, only 4% of House races were considered toss-ups. Because only one party can represent people in single-seat districts, millions of Americans are represented by leaders they oppose. Worse, this system makes it possible for a single party to control leadership in the House even if another party wins more votes.

The Fair Representation Act (FRA) would change this. If enacted, the law would:

  1. Ensure that big congressional districts have several representatives. Today, gerrymandered districts elect one representative, but under the FRA, big districts would elect several representatives. This means that, although a majority of voters can fill a majority of seats, minority voters will still be represented.
  2. Establish ranked-choice voting. In elections, voters would rank their top choices. This means that if your top candidate loses, your vote instantly goes to your second choice.
  3. Require independent redistricting commissions. Voters should choose their elected officials, not the other way around. The FRA would require that independent redistricting commissions, not partisan legislators, draw district boundaries.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (JLVRAA) would restore and expand a landmark civil rights law

That law, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, remains one of the nation’s greatest legislative achievements, a triumph of integrity and equity over racism and oppression. Among many things, the VRA required some states, those with histories of discriminatory voting practices, to get federal permission to make changes to their voting laws. This “preclearance” requirement kept jurisdictions from installing new barriers to voting, barriers that usually hobble the rights of Black and Brown voters. But in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the VRA’s preclearance requirement, a devastating assault on voting protections.

The JLVRAA, named after the late civil rights activist and House Representative John Lewis, would restore preclearance, expand the types of voting changes that would require it, and let federal courts scrutinize a broader array of potentially discriminatory voting laws. For decades, the VRA worked to protect people of color from voting discrimination. It is vital that the JLVRAA pick up the mantle.

The Washington, DC Admission Act would give the residents of DC the rights of citizenship

More than 700,000 people call DC home—more people than live in Vermont or Wyoming. Per capita, DC residents pay more in federal taxes than any state, and men in DC must, like all US men, register for the draft. But while DC residents have the same responsibilities as residents of states, they don’t have the same rights: They have neither senators nor voting representatives. In other words, the residents of DC endure taxation without representation.

This is not only undemocratic, but racist. Washington, DC is a historically Black city, and nearly half of DC residents are Black. The US government has long overrepresented white people and underrepresented everyone else. Nowhere is this more apparent than in DC, a diverse city with no voice in federal government.

The Washington, DC Admission Act would right this wrong, making DC the 51st state and giving it the same rights enjoyed by other states, including two senators in Congress and a voting representative in the House. After more than 200 years of systemic inequality faced by DC residents, it’s time for change.

The road ahead

Most Americans support these election reforms, but the path to passing these bills is long and difficult. Our congressional leaders are cleaved by bitter partisan divide, and the filibuster rule has left the minority party with outsized control and very little interest in representing the public.

But failure is not an option. Without a functioning democracy, none of our other hopes—for health, safety, clean air and water, good jobs, education, a stable climate—are possible. What can we do?

  1. Learn all you can about how US democracy is under assault, and why we need reform now more than ever. Then, spread the word.
  2. The House has already worked to make these bills law, but the Senate is dragging its feet. Tell your senators today that their constituents want action on democracy reform, and that the public expects Congress to prioritize science-based electoral change.
  3. Join us to build a democracy that protects the right to vote, holds our leaders accountable, and champions science as a tool for the public good. Visit http://act.ucsusa.org/democracy-reform to learn how.