So it is good news that Democrats have introduced major democracy reform legislation as their first bill (H.R. 1/S. 1). The For the People Act would standardize rules around voting and elections, removing obstacles to voting; put in place independent redistricting commissions; and make campaign financing more transparent, among many other basic democracy fairness provisions.
It should be especially good news for moderate Republicans, though they might not appreciate it at first. Seen through the lens of short-term partisan control of Congress, the bill might appear to help Democrats. But Republicans, especially those who worry most about the party’s trajectory, should understand that the legislation actually offers them the long-term rescue package they desperately need.
To understand the urgency of democracy reform for both the Republicans and American democracy itself, we need to unravel the close connection between the rules of democracy, the growing extremism of the Republican Party over the past two decades and President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” crusade.
Starting in the early 2000s, Republicans began a coordinated effort to raise concerns about voter fraud, and then used these concerns to justify increasingly onerous state-level voter ID laws targeting Democratic constituencies, especially those of color. Despite never turning up any actual evidence of fraud, GOP leaders churned up a frightening narrative of rampant cheating — especially in the cities. Republican faith in the fairness of elections plummeted.
So, when Trump planted his outlandish claims around the 2020 election, the soil was fertile and well aerated. Republican voters, told for decades that Democrats were perpetuating massive fraud, were ready to believe it — and even storm the U.S. Capitol based on it.
But two other aspects of American politics also contributed to this anti-system extremism. The first is the ever-changing patchwork of state laws around federal elections, whose dynamic uncertainties feed suspicion and distrust. It’s like a football game where scoring a touchdown entitles you to pick new referees until the other team scores. No wonder cynicism flourishes.
The second factor is a steady realignment of the Republicans’ geographical strongholds out of professional suburbia and into small-town, postindustrial and very culturally conservative America, where the declining social status of non-college-educated White men and shrinking numbers of White evangelicals made the party ripe for a demagogic politics of grievance. It also worked with a U.S. electoral system that overweights rural votes (not only through the Senate and the electoral college, but also through gerrymandering in the House), thus allotting disproportionate political power to such voters.
In the short term, Republicans’ best chance of winning back power in Washington obviously involves more of the same: aggressive gerrymandering in the states they control, making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote and justifying it all by perpetuating increasingly outlandish myths about Democrats stealing the elections through fraud. To describe the redistricting fights of 2021 as ugly and brutal will be an understatement. Even Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a supposed hero for his willingness to stand up to Trump’s lies, is still perpetuating myths about “illegal voting,” hoping to flip Georgia back to red.
But over the long term, Republicans are chasing a shrinking constituency that is mobilized through increasingly extreme threat rhetoric that also doubles as a justification for restricting the franchise under the guise of “security.” By turning the election-rules knobs to their most extreme settings, Republicans might squeeze another decade of power out of the current system (especially since they still control many state legislatures), but will eventually find themselves crushed. Even more significant, democracy depends on a shared sense of fairness over basic rules of elections. If Republicans continue to turn the knobs, the system entire system will short out.
H.R. 1 changes this calculus. By tossing these anti-democratic opportunities out of the playbook, H.R. 1 would force Republicans to realize that crying “fraud” will only undermine their supporters’ confidence in even casting a ballot, and that pointlessly driving even deeper conspiracism only further undermines their electoral chances. Instead, more moderate Republicans will be on firmer ground arguing the only path forward for the party is to broaden its appeal beyond grievance politics. Additionally, independent redistricting commissions are likely to create more competitive districts where Republicans will have to nominate moderates to win, thus increasing the number of moderates in the ranks of the congressional GOP making these arguments.
The For the People Act is but a first step in stabilizing and reinvigorating our democracy. Ultimately, though, our democracy will likely need even bolder reforms that make elections more proportional and create space for more than two parties, so that the center-right can break more fully from the extremist far right. But putting in place fair standards on the existing electoral rules is the most immediate task right now. If American democracy were a patient, it would be on life support right now. H.R. 1 is the first, essential treatment in a long road to recovery.