The most urgent crisis facing the US during the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency has been a ticking time bomb that has unfolded far from the White House and the halls of Congress.
It’s an emergency that has unfolded in state capitols across America, where lawmakers have taken up an unprecedented effort to make it harder to vote. Even as attacks on voting rights have escalated in recent years, the Republican effort since January marks a new, more dangerous phase for American democracy, experts say.
From the moment Biden was elected, Republicans have waged an unprecedented effort to undermine confidence in the results in the election, thrusting the foundation of American democracy to the center of American politics.
An alarming peak in that effort came on 6 January, when Republican lies about the election fomented the attack on the US capitol and several GOP senators tried to block certification of the electoral college vote.
Biden was inaugurated on 20 January, but the Republican project to undermine the vote has only grown since then. The effort has been staggering not only in its volume – more than 360 bills with voting restrictions have been introduced so far – but also in its scope.
Republicans in states like Georgia, Florida and Michigan have taken aim at mail in voting with measures that require voters to provide identification information with their mail in ballot application or ballot (in some cases both). They’ve sought to limit access to mail-in ballot drop boxes, even though they were extremely popular for voters in 2020 and there’s no evidence they were connected to malfeasance.
Texas Republicans are advancing legislation that would criminalize minor voting mistakes and give partisan poll watchers the ability to record people at the polls. In Georgia and Arkansas, new legislation makes it illegal to provide food or water to people waiting in line to vote. In Michigan, one Republican proposal would even go so far as to block the state’s top election official from providing a link to an absentee ballot application on a state government website.
“The GOP’s strategy of voter suppression and voter repression is so out in the open,” said Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who served as the lead impeachment manager during Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. “There used to be some formal, bipartisan agreement that everyone really should have the right to vote and that’s a fundamental value. That is gone right now.”
This attack on ballot access has been akin to a toxic undercurrent running underneath Biden’s first few months in office, eroding away at the country’s democratic foundations. Left unchecked, it will likely not only set the stage for Republicans to retake control of the US House in 2022, but also allow the Republican party to hold on to its political power by shutting a rapidly diversifying electorate out from the ballot box.
Usually when a political party suffers a defeat like the one Republicans did in 2020, they spend time trying to figure out how to appeal to more voters, said Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator from Minnesota.
Instead, Klobuchar said, Republicans are trying to shut out those who disagree with them. She pointed to Georgia, where Republicans responded to the first Democratic statewide wins in decades by passing a sweeping new voting restrictions, as a clear crystallization of this effort.
“That’s why I think it’s in such acute focus right now. It’s like in technicolor,” she said. “It is a raw exercise of political power.”
The constitution gives the US president little unilateral power over voting laws, a power explicitly given to the states, but Biden has done just about all he can to act alone against these efforts. On the day he was inaugurated, he halted a Trump administration effort to try and use the census to limit non-citizen representation. He has used the power of the power of his bully pulpit to unsparingly criticize the measures (“Jim Crow in the 21st century” is how he described Georgia’s voting measure).
In March, he issued a relatively modest, but potentially significant executive order, directing federal agencies to expand voting access. He has created a senior-level White House role focused on voting rights tapped two longtime civil rights lawyers with an expertise in voting rights to top roles at the justice department, which is responsible for enforcing some of the nation’s top voting rights laws.
Beyond that, Biden and Democrats in Washington have been unable to do much.
That’s largely because of the filibuster, a procedural rule in the US Senate that requires 60 votes to advance legislation. Democrats do not have enough votes to eliminate the filibuster, and it’s currently blocking a bill that would block many of the restrictions advancing at the state level and dramatically expand access to the ballot, including national requirements for same-day, automatic and online registration.
The filibuster also threatens a Democratic effort to pass a new version of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that would implement a new formula requiring certain states to get voting changes approved by the federal government before they go into effect.
“This is really an existential crisis. It’s a 5-alarm fire. But I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in for members of the United States Senate or the Democratic party writ large,” said Amanda Litman, the executive director of Run for Something, which seeks to recruit candidates for state legislative races.
Litman added: “If the Senate does not kill the filibuster and pass voting rights reforms … Democrats are going to lose control of the House and likely the senate forever. You don’t put these worms back into a can. You can’t undo this quite easily.”
When Biden was first inaugurated, he made it clear he did not favor getting rid of the filibuster. But in March, he tweaked his position, saying he supported reforming the process so that senators would actually have to speak on the floor in order to hold up the legislation. Some other Democrats have suggested a carve-out to the filibuster for democracy in voting rights legislation.
Still, Democrats don’t appear to have enough support to do that. A small group of Democratic senators, led by Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, refuse to budge on changing the filibuster, saying it’s a necessary tool to protect input of the minority. It’s not yet clear how Democrats might persuade them to change their minds, or if they can be swayed at all.
Jim Clyburn, one of the top Democrats in the US House of Representatives, has been even blunter in his warnings about the cost of preserving the filibuster, repeatedly calling out Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Synema, two Democrats who have been staunch defenders of the filibuster.
“If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights,” he told the Guardian in March.
There is increasing urgency for Democrats to resolve their filibuster problem. Later this year, state lawmakers will begin the once a decade redistricting process, which Republicans are extremely well positioned to control. GOP lawmakers are likely to aggressively manipulate congressional and state legislative districts by grouping GOP-friendly voters into certain districts and spreading Democratic voters among others. The process could eliminate the Democratic majority in the House and make it harder for Democrats to get elected to state legislative seats. The Democratic voting rights bills in Congress would implement new safeguards to prevent egregious manipulation in drawing districts.
Klobuchar, whose committee is currently weighing the voting rights bill, pledged that the bill would come to the floor of the Senate for a vote. She said it was important to her to keep the bill together as a single package – some observers have suggested breaking it up – and wouldn’t let the filibuster block the measure.
“This is our very democracy that’s at stake,” she said. “One of my jobs is to make very clear why we’re doing this…That’s why voting works. That’s how people exercise their right to give their views to their elected officials. Once you start messing with that, you lose a democracy. So I’m not gonna let some old senate rule get in the way of that.”
Raskin, the Democratic congressman, said it had been “sobering and demoralizing” to see legislation to protect voting rights stall in Congress.
“There is a sense that Mitch McConnell essentially spoke for the whole Republican party when he said during the Obama years that they had one overriding objective, which was to thwart Obama’s success in office,” he said. “And it seems like the one overarching objective they have now is to thwart Biden’s success and to blockade voting by people they think won’t vote for them.”