The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An early move from Democrats seeks to undo an ugly part of Trump’s legacy

The heart of the nation’s capital is a maze of fences, concrete barriers and security checkpoints ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. (Video: The Washington Post)
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After President Trump undertook an unprecedented effort to overturn the election, and after Trump incited a mob assault on lawmakers who resisted that scheme, many Republicans have already signaled how they’ll carry forward this aspect of his legacy: by doubling down on counter-majoritarian tactics.

So it’s good news that one of the first moves from Senate Democrats in the majority will be the announcement of a sweeping pro-democracy package that would widen access to voting and seek to ensure that executive branch officials operate in the public interest.

The first honorary bill from Senate Democrats in the 117th Congress will be the For the People Act, a Democratic aide confirms to me. It will be announced Tuesday by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming majority leader, and Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), its lead co-sponsors.

Here’s why this could get interesting. It could set up an early clash with Republicans over how each party will respond to the legacy of Trump’s extraordinary assault on our democracy, with one party moving to aggressively expand the franchise, and the other seeking to further restrict it.

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It will also test the commitments of other actors in the wake of this legacy, probing whether a new, pro-democracy center-right is emerging as a foil to Republicans who are already gearing up to respond to the party’s 2020 losses with a renewed commitment to minority rule tactics.

The ‘For the People Act'

The new bill would dramatically broaden voting access. It would require states to implement automatic voter registration, extensive early voting and same-day registration. It would restrict efforts by states to place suppressive hurdles on voting and vote-by-mail.

The bill also seeks to restore protections in the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted and to block states from disenfranchising felons. It would require states to adopt independent redistricting commissions, a strike at likely GOP efforts to gerrymander House maps in 2021.

The bill would also implement new disclosure requirements on lobbying and “dark money” spending, and would require presidents and vice presidents to disclose tax returns. These would constitute a major reform effort after the extraordinary corruption of the Trump era and codify a norm against personal self-dealing that Trump basically destroyed.

It’s still not clear when this will get a vote, though a Democratic aide tells me Schumer will guarantee it does get one. It’s also possible we’ll see infighting: As Politico (which first reported on the bill) notes, some may oppose its provision on public financing of campaigns. Some of its provisions will arouse intense GOP opposition. So its fate is unclear.

But what’s also important is the broad national argument that should unfold around the effort.

A bigger argument

What this again underscores — just as the House did when it passed H.R. 1 after Democrats won the majority in 2018 — is that the Democratic response to the degradations of the Trump era will be to reaffirm the party’s commitment to strengthening democracy and cleaning up corruption. That is, an actual “draining of the swamp.”

But events of recent days should clarify this debate even further. A presidential election with unprecedentedly high turnout was followed by the most concerted effort to reverse the results of the modern era, based on endless lies about the election being illegitimate.

Republicans in various states are now responding to this outcome with plans for still more voter suppression in the name of combating “voter fraud.” They will claim loss of public faith in elections — which Trump and they themselves worked so hard to foment — as the justification.

“Many Republicans are likely to continue to claim that the loss of faith in elections, which they created, means we need to pass restrictive voting laws,” Adam Bozzi, vice president for communications at End Citizens United, told me.

As Bozzi noted, it would be particularly perverse for Republicans to respond to an election with such turnout with more arbitrary restrictions. By contrast, Bozzi noted, Democrats are responding to the “attacks on democracy by putting rules in place to protect it for the long term.”

Lincoln Project backs new package

This should also test where various center-right figures now stand on democracy. Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, tells me his group will back the new package and hold it up as a test of Republicans’ democratic commitments, including highlighting failure on this front to GOP donors.

“If Republicans want to move past Trump and repudiate Trumpism in all its forms, they need to pass foundational reforms to democracy,” Galen told me. “Senate Republicans must make a choice: Do they stand for democracy or are they the new Jim Crow caucus?”

Meanwhile, some commentators have suggested the relatively successful GOP down-ballot performance in 2020 shows the party needn’t fear high-turnout elections and should try running on a conservative populist agenda rather than banking on voter suppression.

If so, whatever their attitude toward this bill’s particulars, you’d think these commentators would generally support efforts to roll back GOP counter-majoritarian tactics, as this bill seeks to do.

Ultimately, the deeper dispute here is over what civic renewal should look like after Trump, at a time when our democracy and civic cohesion are under some of the worst strains since the Civil War, as Ron Brownstein documents.

We had record turnout and participation in an election that showed election workers performing heroically amid extraordinarily difficult conditions, including a raging pandemic and an unprecedented assault by a sitting president on the integrity of our political system.

The Democratic response to this will be to make voting and participation easier and less subject to arbitrary and cynical efforts to limit them. What will the Republican response be?

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Appalling new video of the rioters is a big problem for Trump’s GOP enablers

Matt Bai: Biden’s challenge: A speech for the Cold Civil War

Charles Lane: America is not exceptional after all

Michael Gerson: A fresh start for Republicans can come only if they abandon authoritarian populism

Max Boot: Trump couldn’t have incited sedition without the help of Fox News

Catherine Rampell: Hurrah for the end of buck-passing (hopefully)