Republicans around the country are plotting a new wave of voter suppression laws in reaction to their 2020 losses, but many of their proposals can be defanged if congressional Democrats take decisive action. Just last month, Democrats introduced sweeping bills that would enact the most transformative changes to our democracy since the 1965 Voting Rights Act and provide a critical bulwark against GOP efforts to suppress votes. These reforms include:
- The “For the People Act”—also known as H.R. 1—which would adopt a historic expansion of voting access policies, ban congressional gerrymandering, and create a system of public financing for congressional elections;
- Legislation that would grant statehood to Washington, D.C.; and
- A bill to restore and expand the Voting Rights Act’s protections after the Supreme Court’s conservatives gutted the VRA in 2013.
These reforms are urgently needed. Last year saw Republicans almost win full control of the federal government despite receiving millions fewer votes than Democrats at all levels—from the Electoral College down to the Senate and House. Donald Trump then followed up on this near miss by trying to overturn the results in court and in Congress, and through inciting mob violence once it was clear he had lost.
The case of the House is instructive. Thanks to widespread GOP gerrymandering, Republicans very nearly retook the lower chamber last year and might very well have done so had Democrats not brought successful lawsuits over the last decade that resulted in new maps in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. But it might only be a temporary reprieve: Thanks to a strong performance at the legislative level, Republicans are poised to dominate redistricting across the country just as the Supreme Court’s GOP hardliners threaten to turbocharge gerrymandering.
The Senate presents a different sort of problem. As our newly published data illustrates, Democratic senators have collectively won more votes and represented more Americans than Republicans continuously since 2000 but have only run the chamber half the time since. Had Senate Republicans won just over 1,000 votes more in New Hampshire in 2016, GOP minority rule would have continued in 2020 despite Democratic senators representing tens of millions more constituents. Of course, there’s also the Electoral College: A shift of just 40,000 votes in three key swing states could have seen Trump again win the presidency last year in spite of a second popular vote loss.
Republican minority rule isn’t just a threat to our elected offices. It’s already a reality on the U.S. Supreme Court, where five conservative justices have been confirmed by senates where the Republican majority had won fewer votes and represented fewer people than the Democratic minority. Three of those justices were also appointed by a president who lost the popular vote.
And that’s before we even get to January’s unparalleled attacks on democracy by Republican extremists. These included the far-right insurrection that saw a violent mob ransack the Capitol, leave several dead in their wake, nearly cost elected officials their lives, and led to Trump’s impeachment for the second time after he and his allies in Congress incited the violence by telling lies about voter fraud and stolen elections.
Despite that violent coup attempt, two-thirds of House Republicans and several prominent GOP senators voted just hours later that day to overturn the Electoral College results in the hopes of stealing the election for Trump. Our democracy has been increasingly under siege by the far right for years, but these attempts to overthrow it both through mob violence and congressional action mark the lowest ebb in American civic health since the Civil War.
We can reverse this decline, however, by adopting the reforms currently before Congress. But to pass them would require unanimous support among Senate Democrats and a newfound willingness to curtail the filibuster in the face of certain Republican obstruction. If Democrats don’t take advantage of their fleeting chance to pass transformational reforms to our democratic institutions and protect voting rights, our democracy may not survive much longer.
A failure to act could see Republicans regain a gerrymandered majority in the House in 2022 and another majority in the Senate next year despite once again failing to win more votes or represent more Americans than Democrats. A Republican-run Congress could even try to overturn democracy outright in 2024 by rejecting the outcome of the Electoral College, just as Trump and his many allies sought to do last month.
Democracy reform must be at the top of the agenda this year, because the future of our political system—and every other policy effort—depends upon it.