Republican State Legislatures Are Winning Their War On American Democracy

Texas Democrats scored a stunning victory in the nationwide legislative battle over voting rights last weekend when they walked out en masse to prevent state House Republicans from passing yet another sweeping package of voting restrictions.

But even that episode underscored a reality facing voting rights groups and their Democratic allies: Right now, Republican state legislatures are broadly winning their war against voting access and American democracy. And stopping them is going to take far more drastic action than many Democrats — especially Democrats in Washington — have been willing to consider.

Fueled by lies that widespread voter fraud cost Donald Trump the 2020 election, Republicans have passed new voter suppression laws at the fastest pace in a decade. They have advanced legislation — and in some states, passed bills into law — that would make it easier for local officials and legislatures to overturn future elections. Republican officials who questioned the results of the 2020 election are lining up to run for secretary of state positions and other elected positions that would give them more control over elections. 

Democratic state legislatures have pushed to expand voting rights, and Democratic leaders made major voting rights and election reform packages a top priority at the beginning of this Congress. 

But the scope of Democrats’ expansive bills in state legislatures hasn’t matched the aggression of GOP efforts to curb voting rights, and neither has the Democrats’ strategy.

Key Senate Democrats — including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — have refused to back filibuster reform or abolition to pass the For The People Act, the sweeping election reform and voting rights legislation that passed the House in March. Republicans are uniformly opposed to the bill, and this insistence on bipartisanship from key Democratic players will likely kill it.

Meanwhile, GOP state lawmakers have shown no such hesitancy to use their majorities to ram through the sort of major voting restrictions and election overhauls they believe will help them win — or give them more power to overturn elections if they don’t.

“They’re working to criminalize voting, and they’re working to criminalize protesting,” said Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project. But too many Democrats, Ufot said, “are not meeting the urgency of this moment with their own urgency in action.” 

‘A Virtually Unprecedented Effort’ To Suppress The Vote

Republican legislatures in 14 states have already passed 23 laws that placed new restrictions on voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Another 60 restrictive bills are moving through legislatures in 18 states, according to the Brennan Center’s legislative tracker. At the current pace, the U.S. will have more new voter suppression laws than in any year since 2011, when a rash of new voter ID provisions went onto the books. 

State legislatures have approved more bills that expand voting rights than bills that restrict them. But many of those bills have passed in states where it is already easier to vote, meaning progress has been slower than the regress that has occurred as Republicans implement new restrictions in key swing states and solidly red states alike.

The GOP’s efforts have specifically targeted Black, brown and Native voters, initiatives that help expand access to the polls, and programs that drive turnout among typically disenfranchised populations. 

“We are seeing a virtually unprecedented effort to suppress Americans’ right to vote in states across the country, of the sort that we haven’t really seen since the Jim Crow era,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, who leads the Brennan Center’s state voting laws program. 

Democrats and voting rights advocates have succeeded in drawing widespread scrutiny to the GOP’s efforts to curb voting rights, including from major corporations that have traditionally funded and backed Republicans. But little of the outcry has fazed the GOP, which has unified around voter suppression, shrugged off the public and corporate opposition, and advanced major voting restriction bills anyway ― in large part because the Republican base has bought into the lies Trump and GOP lawmakers pushed about election fraud. 

Although some of the most obviously anti-democratic ideas have foundered in state legislatures, others have thrived and spread. At the last minute, Texas Republicans inserted language into their voting restrictions package that would’ve lowered the threshold for courts to overturn an election. Georgia’s new law similarly allows the state legislature to suspend election officials they don’t like, and removed Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, a Republican who refused Trump’s pleas to overturn the state’s election, from his seat on the state election board. Arizona Republicans are likely to strip some powers from Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. 

The Arizona GOP’s “audit” of election results in Maricopa County is an obvious sham, as even county GOP officials have argued. But the absurdity of the spectacle has only drawn more support from Republicans in other states, who have flocked to Phoenix to observe it. And efforts to conduct similarly conspiratorial reviews of the election are intensifying in other states, although courts and even some GOP lawmakers have blocked such efforts in Michigan and Pennsylvania thus far. 

“I don’t know how mainstream it will become, but it’s absolutely spreading across the nation,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) told HuffPost this week. 

Even the Democratic victory in Texas may be short-lived. The GOP legislature there will push a new package of voting restrictions during a special legislative session this fall, and there is fear among some Texas activists that Republicans will propose an even more aggressive package of restrictions.

Understanding The Urgency

Still, some activists say it’s not clear that Democrats in Washington, and especially Manchin and Sinema — the latter of whom supports the For The People Act but not filibuster reform — realize how dire the situation is.

That includes the Republican assault on voting rights in the states and in a Republican Party where 139 GOP members of Congress voted to overturn an election in January, then voted against the creation of a commission to investigate the riotous insurrection that occurred thanks to their lies. 

“There is a misguided commitment to making sure that this passes with a bipartisan vote,” Ufot said. “And they appear to be willing to leverage the attacks on democracy for some sort of intellectual commitment that they have to bipartisanship, even if it doesn’t make sense. … Listen: the threat is inside the house.”

Voting groups greeted Biden’s decision to place Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of voting rights legislation this week as a welcome sign that the administration is pushing democracy protection to the top of its agenda. The Senate’s confirmation of Kristen Clarke to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has also increased hopes that the nation’s top law enforcement body will soon help bolster the current legal challenges to restrictive voting laws to defend Black and brown voters who are being disenfranchised. 

“We’ve been playing whack-a-mole filing lawsuits or being party to lawsuits across the landscape,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP. “There is no way, considering the rapid pace in which legislative bodies are seeking to suppress the Black vote, that we will be able to keep up all our efforts without support from this administration and the federal government stepping in and pushing back on these efforts.”

Johnson is meeting with Manchin next week, and other groups may soon ramp up public pressure on the ground in Arizona and West Virginia to sway the two most obvious Democratic holdouts. They also want Biden and Harris to push Manchin and Sinema, and the White House is also planning to pressure more corporations to join the fight as well.  

But anxiety over the fate of the For The People Act is intensifying, even as voting rights groups publicly insist they’re still optimistic about its chances to pass this year. For months, activists have reminded Democrats that federal action is needed, but those calls have reached a fever pitch: Even as they celebrated the victory in Texas this week, voting rights groups pleaded for help from Washington.

“We can’t just fight this in Georgia and then hop over to Florida, and hop over to Texas,” Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said on a press call this week. “We shouldn’t be in a state-by-state battle. We have got to have federal legislation. We need the full force of the White House and the full force of Congress to stand on the side of people, to stand on the side of democracy, to not underestimate those that are trying to turn the clock back on us.”

An ‘All Hands On Deck’ Moment

For all the Republican hand-wringing about the last election, the party’s most anti-democratic members are focused primarily on the next one. 

Republicans who sought to undermine and overturn the results of the 2020 election are now launching campaigns for secretary of state in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada, and more are likely to follow.

During the pandemic last year, secretaries of state oversaw and directed efforts to expand voting by mail and other ballot access measures. As chief election officials, they sat at the forefront of the effort to protect the election from outright lies that it had been stolen or was rife with fraud. 

If election skeptics like Georgia GOP Rep. Jody Hice, who wanted to overturn his state’s election, can commandeer such posts in 2022, they would have major platforms from which to act just as aggressively against democracy as many election officials acted in favor of it last year.

“There’s so many barriers you could put into place,” said Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state. “You could continue to spread lies to try to decrease confidence. You could do fake audits.”

But the ultimate worry, she said, is that “they will use their office to suppress votes and tilt elections towards themselves and their political friends.”

Democrats say that Republicans’ attacks on democracy and their spoiled efforts to overturn last year’s election have awoken voters and the Democratic Party to the importance of down-ballot contests, like secretary of state and state legislative seats, and that the Republicans’ continued radicalization will hurt them further.

There are some indications that’s true: The GOP’s baseless allegations of fraud may have helped undermine faith in the vote and limited Republican turnout in a New Mexico special congressional election this week, which Democrat Melanie Stansbury won by a larger margin in the district than Biden or former Rep. Deb Haaland (D), who left the seat to serve as interior secretary, did last year.

But winning at the state level hasn’t exactly been a specialty of the modern Democratic Party, which failed to win any new state legislative majorities in 2020. That only made it easier for angry, conspiracy theory-driven Republicans to push voting restrictions and other anti-democratic legislation in states like Arizona, Texas and Michigan. Gerrymandering during the looming redistricting of Congress and state legislative districts is only going to make it harder to wrest back control of state chambers from the GOP or maintain Democrats’ slim majority in Congress. 

So winning the fight over the For The People Act may be Democrats’ and voting rights groups’ best hope of preventing the most dramatic backslide in American democracy since the Jim Crow era — a backslide that may take a generation or more to reverse even in the best-case scenario, and pose an existential threat to democracy in the worst. 

“We need to mobilize multiple sectors of civil society in order to make this happen,” Ufot said of passing the legislation. “We’re talking about the press, we’re talking about corporations, we’re talking about activists and organizers, the civil rights groups. We’re talking about state elected officials. We’re talking about the federal administration.”

“This is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment, and all hands aren’t on deck yet,” she said. “But my hope is that they will be in advance of this vote.”

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