Yet it would be a mistake to think the fight to preserve and revive our flawed democracy concluded on Inauguration Day. In fact, it has only begun. The Capitol siege was just the latest and most brazen instance of politicians leading efforts to delay democracy when it threatens their power — by suppressing the votes of political opponents, giving corporate funding undue influence over the people’s representatives and structuring Congress so that favored factions can hold on to outsize power. This trend is growing even more dangerous now that the coronavirus pandemic has made voting even more difficult, and toxic lies about election fraud have fueled further voting restrictions. In the words of Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), “this moment might be our last opportunity to shore up American democracy and prevent it from sliding further into a state of chaos, dysfunction, and billionaire-fueled minority rule.”
Fortunately, the new Congress is already fighting to restore democracy. One of the first bills before the new Senate — submitted as S. 1 to reflect its importance — will be Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D-Ore.) For the People Act. The act is the Senate counterpart to the House’s For the People Act, a sweeping piece of legislation spearheaded by Sarbanes and passed in 2019. Both versions of the legislation would implement automatic voter registration, expand same-day voter registration and institute early voting nationwide. Also awaiting a vote in the Senate is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. Together, these bills would do more to protect and expand the right to vote than any legislation passed since the Great Society.
True small-d democracy, however, also requires that these votes actually matter — that they determine the direction in which the country moves. This is an even tougher fight, but the For the People Act includes several provisions that form a solid start. Both the House and Senate versions combat extreme partisan gerrymandering by requiring redistricting to be led by independent commissions. They also fight “dark money” in politics by requiring all political organizations to disclose their donors. This would incentivize legislators to work on behalf of constituents, not corporations, and promote the small-dollar campaign funding that gives more Americans a fair shot at winning elected offices.
In addition to passing this legislation, lawmakers will need to be committed to tackling structural obstacles that have delayed democracy for far too many, for far too long. A truly well-functioning democracy would welcome the District of Columbia as a state and offer a referendum on statehood for Puerto Rico to end the disgraceful practice of taxation without representation for millions of Americans. It would do away with the electoral college, so that every citizen gets an equal say in who becomes the president. And it would rethink or even get rid of the filibuster that has turned the Senate into what former senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) called a “graveyard for progress” — a place where senators cannot legislate on behalf of their constituents because they simply cannot legislate at all. Already, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is abusing the filibuster by threatening to block a necessary bill that sets rules and committee assignments for the new session. If this obstruction continues, Democrats will have no choice but to end the filibuster for good.
These will undoubtedly be tough fights, especially as so many crises compete for public attention. But we cannot forget that on Jan. 6, the same day a mob attempted to overturn our election, we celebrated the results in Georgia’s runoff elections. Ending the voter suppression that shaped Georgia’s politics for decades once seemed a hopeless battle. But a successful fight to implement automatic voter registration in 2016 and a years-long campaign to get out the vote resulted, at long last, in a sea change in the state’s politics. It’s because of that work that Democrats have a chance to legislate in the first place. Making investments in democracy now will ensure that the country has a credible shot at taking on the problems we face in the long term — and prove that, as Amanda Gorman put it so eloquently, democracy can only be delayed, never defeated.