Stacey Abrams responds to President Trump. (Pool video image via AP)
Opinion writer

Last week, House Democrats passed a sweeping pro-democracy bill that, among many other reforms, would make voting easier in multiple different ways. This is widely being treated as a “message bill,” since it has no chance of going anywhere in the GOP-controlled Senate.

But the passage of this bill also tells another story that I think hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated: Democrats are bringing a new level of realism to the war over democracy itself, one that they increasingly recognize is absolutely crucial to their long-term hopes, and one that may well get worse over time.

Over at CNN, Ron Brownstein has a new analysis that sheds light on the broader dimensions of this conflict. The reform bill includes multiple measures to facilitate voting and make voter suppression harder, such as federal standards for things like automatic voter registration, early voting, and independent redistricting commissions (to prevent extreme gerrymanders); limits on voter ID laws; and purges of names from the voter rolls, and so forth.

Brownstein looks at the evolving war over voting in the context of the country’s changing demographics, and how that is impacting each party. As Brownstein notes, with Democrats increasingly reliant on a rising coalition of minorities and young people, they will also be harder pressed to knock down barriers to their participation. On the flip side, with Republicans increasingly threatened by such voter groups, they will be increasingly reliant on putting up such barriers:

Particularly in states across the Sun Belt -- from North Carolina, Florida and Georgia to Texas and Arizona -- the electoral competition is shaped by a stark demographic divide. In all of those states, Democrats are increasingly reliant on growing populations of younger and nonwhite voters.

But in each of those states and others demographically similar to them, a Republican coalition almost entirely dependent on white voters -- especially older, blue-collar and non-urban whites -- still has the advantage, particularly in state elections.

In each state the Republican majorities have used that power to approve either restrictions on voting -- such as tougher voter identification laws -- partisan gerrymanders or both, making it more difficult for that emerging nonwhite electorate to overturn their dominance. ...

Though the minority population isn’t growing there as fast, the same dynamic is present in Rust Belt states where Republican legislatures and governors empowered by the 2010 GOP landslide imposed new restrictions on voting or severely gerrymandered the lines for state elections, such as Wisconsin.

In this larger context, it is no accident that Democrats chose Stacey Abrams to deliver the rebuttal to Trump’s address to Congress. Abrams lost a razor-close election in a Sun Belt state (Georgia) that is edging toward the Democratic column because of demographic change, and that election was beset by voting irregularities. Abrams utilized that high-profile moment to explicitly declare the importance of “voting rights” as the “next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country.”

The intended contrast was with President Trump, who has used the White House bully pulpit to endorse long-running GOP voter suppression tactics in the name of combating fake voter fraud. Trump took this to new levels, even setting up a phony voter fraud commission to employ government resources to make the voter fraud lie into a phony truth, but this was so transparently based on nonsense that it crashed and burned.

As it happens, I wrote a book telling this broader story. While both parties have employed ugly tactics (particularly extreme gerrymanders) for a very long time, something has changed in recent years. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, powered by an unprecedentedly diverse electorate, persuaded Republicans that they were facing a serious long-term demographic threat. After the massive GOP rout in 2010, which put Republicans in charge of state legislatures and governorships across the country, they ramped up the voter suppression tactics and extreme gerrymanders, often to great effect.

This focused Democrats’ minds on the importance of winning back ground on the level of the states, and they vowed not to get caught off guard again heading into the 2018 elections. They won a lot of ground back on the state level, including seven governorships, and the renewed focus on voting rules among Democrats also led to the successful implementation in numerous states of reforms such as automatic voter registration and independent redistricting commissions.

At the same time, Democrats are more committed to policing abuses in their own ranks that they used to carry out with abandon. When New Jersey Democrats tried to pull off a gerrymandering scheme, a national outcry from progressives and Democratic lawmakers and officials forced them to abandon it.

The Democratic victory in 2018 created a House Democratic caucus of unprecedented racial diversity, and further polarized the House along some of the racial and demographic lines that are now dividing the parties. Thus, it is no accident that the very first major piece of legislation that Democrats passed was H.R. 1, placing the party firmly on record in support of aggressive action to maximize participation and knock down efforts to limit it.

As Brownstein notes, this “underscores that all elements of the party now recognize how much their future may depend on mobilizing the increasingly diverse populations of younger Americans — especially as so many older whites are drawn to Trump’s confrontational message of racial nationalism.”

As my book points out, if these trends continue, as they likely will, the battles over voting could only grow more freighted with racial and ethic tensions, and as a result, more bitter and acrimonious. Republicans got a leg up on this, but Democrats increasingly understand that the prospects of future progress turn to no small degree on winning the war over democracy itself.