ABOVE: Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) gavels the end of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on July 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. The bipartisan committee, which has been gathering evidence on the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol, is presenting its findings in a series of televised hearings. On January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building during an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for President Joe Biden. (Photo by Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty Images)
The compelling report of the January 6 Committee, detailing the conspiracy that led to the sacking of the Capitol on that day of infamy, marks a chapter, not the end of the struggle for democracy.
The report includes both criminal referrals for the conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power, and details reforms to protect against any repeat in the future.
Far broader reforms are needed, however, if our government is in fact to be a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as Abraham Lincoln pledged in his historic Gettysburg Address.
Our election system remains grievously deformed. Voter participation has been rising in recent elections but remains far below that of other democracies. Nearly one in four eligible voters are not registered to vote.
In states across the country, partisan legislatures restrict access to voting, often targeting voters of color. Partisan gerrymandering enables those with a minority of votes to win a majority of legislative seats. Big money – often dark money from an unknown source – increasingly dominates our elections. And, while the 2022 elections turned back many of the most partisan election deniers, now there is a systematic effort to elect partisans as election officials – and to empower partisan legislatures to overturn the results of elections they do not like.
Democracy isn’t set in concrete. It is a fragile plant that must be tended to. The founding of our democracy was a bold and earth-shaking act. Yet, from the beginning, it was flawed – initially only white, male property owners could vote. It took years of struggle, and a Civil War – the bloodiest in our history – for the right to vote to be extended to all citizens, including Blacks, women, and the young.
The January 6 Committee focused on the events of that day and on Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn and discredit the election. But the erosion of democratic elections goes much further than that. In the past decades, the Supreme Court – in divided, partisan opinions – has gutted the Voting Rights Act, opening the door once more to racially targeted voting impediments. It has ruled that the federal courts have no role in limiting partisan gerrymanders. And worse, it has opened the door to limitless election contributions, including by corporations.
The Congress will surely pass the Election Count Act to clean up the procedures by which presidential elections are determined, to deter the mischief that Trump pursued. Much more is needed to put meat back on the bones of our democracy.
For example, it is preposterous that registering to vote is so difficult, and that nearly a fourth of eligible voters are not registered. A sensible reform would be to use the census to register everyone automatically – and then make it easy for voters to update their status automatically when they use any government service like applying for a license.
In the last Congress, the House of Representatives passed the most consequential voting rights reforms of the last half-century – in the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that revived the Voting Rights Act.
The For the People Act created federal standards that would make voting registration far easier, eliminate partisan gerrymandering, and counter the dominance of big money by providing a 6 to 1 match of small donors, requiring disclosure of financial sources, and cracking down on foreign money and meddling in our elections.
Passed in the House, it fell to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Republicans were wrong to oppose it. Democrats were wrong to not make it possible to bolster democracy and free elections by majority rule, carving out an exception to the filibuster.
In the next year, these vital reforms face forbidding hurdles. The new Republican House leadership will likely oppose putting the legislation forward. The Senate remains frozen by the filibuster.
Democracy can’t wait, however. States with Democratic or bipartisan majorities should move forward with state versions of the For the People Act. They can try out ways to limit big money in our politics. The Democratic Party itself can govern its own primaries and set up its own rules – without requiring Republican approval.
In the last election, democracy was on the ballot. And voters clearly indicated that they did not want our elections to be subverted by partisan machinations. Now as we head into 2024, strengthening our democracy – and limiting the role of big money in our elections – is still unfinished business. The struggle to build a more perfect union must and will go on.
In the 1820s and 1830s, for example, Jacksonian Democrats unilaterally pushed to enfranchise poor and working-class white men. The 15th Amendment, which prohibited states from denying Black Americans the right to vote, passed Congress in 1869 with precisely zero Democratic votes. Reconstruction-era Democrats were equally unified against the 14th Amendment and the Ku Klux Klan Act. Should Republicans have waited for Democrats to come around while people of color were denied full citizenship?
This is not an argument to postpone election reform — it’s an argument for Republicans to get on the right side of history.
This is a blinkered and naïve view of redistricting. As my colleague Michael Li points out, Republican map drawers have used the redistricting process to shore up the districts they already gerrymandered heavily in 2010. As a result, North Carolina Republicans could carry 71 percent of the state’s seats in Congress with just 47 percent of the vote. Texas Democrats would have to win 58 percent of the vote to be favored to capture 37 percent of the state’s congressional seats. The redistricting process has been particularly damaging to voters of color, whose districts were carved up to minimize their voting power. This isn’t gerrymandering in retreat, it’s gerrymandering 2.0.