With the For the People Act stalled in the Senate, Democrats are poised to make another push on voting legislation in the coming weeks. They say their roughly 900 pages of federal voting mandates and other provisions are all that stands between our democracy and an irreversible era of Republican authoritarianism –– bipartisanship be damned.
Yet, merits of the bill aside, the fact remains that attempting a national rewrite of federal election law with a razor-thin majority is unlikely to succeed, and even if it did, could dangerously backfire on our democracy. Instead, Congress should follow the example of several states by forging a sustainable two-party solution that puts voters first and keeps election administration beyond partisan politics.
The fate of our democracy hinges more on trust than on laws. Like the currency we use every day, the value of our vote derives from our faith in it. Not only will skirting the filibuster further accelerate the ongoing tit-for-tat erosion of our governing institutions, but new voting rules jammed through by one party will inevitably be viewed as election-rigging by roughly half the country and further undermine confidence in electoral outcomes.
While Sen. Joe Manchin’s compromise framework is a helpful way forward, any viable federal voting solution must be developed alongside pro-democracy Republicans. Which ones? Consider the eight GOP senators who either voted to convict at President Trump’s impeachment trial or voted in favor of the Jan. 6 Commission. Earning their support and adding at least two more to surpass 60 votes should not be an impossible task for legislation that would be much less politically perilous among the Republican primary electorate.
These Republican senators must soon put forward their own plan. We know what they’re against, but what are they for? To her credit, Lisa Murkowski has repeatedly stated her support for restoring the Voting Rights Act, along with provisions for early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. Her leadership is a foundation on which to build.
Unfortunately, like nearly every other national issue, democracy itself has become polarized between two competing, self-serving narratives from both political parties. As usual, Americans are presented with a false choice: in this case, between voting access and security.
Fueled by unsubstantiated assertions of a stolen election in 2020, Republican attempts at the state level to restrict voting access and meddle with election administration are both predictable and inexcusable. Though the impact of portions of these new laws has at times been greatly exaggerated, the impact of other aspects has not –– and one can understand the moral outrage around any attempts to make it harder to vote, especially from Americans who have historically been disenfranchised.
But where Democrats see a Big Lie, Republicans see a series of smaller ones –– including how the label of “voter suppression” has been applied as a catch-all to broadly popular voter ID laws that research demonstrates has a negligible effect on turnout and to routine voter list maintenance that is required under law. Republicans point out that some of the most restrictive voting policies are those already in place in blue states like Connecticut and Delaware, while some of the best models exist in red states like Utah and Ohio.
The current national debate on voting –– which is often divorced from the realities of election administration –– overshadows our nation’s history of bipartisan voting legislation and broad agreement that is still possible today.
This year, Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear (pictured) and Republican Secretary of State Mike Adams championed legislation that permanently established early voting while prohibiting so-called ballot harvesting. In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed bipartisan legislation that will send a mail ballot to every registered voter prior to the general election while requiring a signature match. Those who do not believe bipartisanship is possible certainly have a way of proving themselves right, but these states demonstrate otherwise.
Congress itself has passed bipartisan voting legislation in recent decades, which included provisions to streamline voter registration, provide funding for updated elections infrastructure, enfranchise service members and citizens abroad, and much more. That included the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, the 2002 Help America Vote Act, the 2010 Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act, and the CARES Act of 2020. In addition, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed and reauthorized with strong bipartisan support several times, most recently in 2006.
How could a bipartisan agreement be found once again today? Republicans are aghast at private funding of election administration in 2020 and have previously supported increased federal funding for elections. In combination with a new Voting Rights Act, Congress could continue to offer additional federal elections funding, on the condition of specific benchmarks for both voting access and voting security. For example, Congress could reward states that offer no-excuse absentee balloting and a week of early in-person voting, along with signature matching (or an equivalent), requiring paper trails and routine auditing.
A congressional compromise on voting will not immediately cure our ailing democracy. A set of proposals that has buy-in from Senate Republicans, however, would at least have a chance of passing and would bring real benefits to voters of all political affiliations –– without digging our trust deficit deeper.