The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are wasting time pursuing their dream elections reform bill. Here’s a better path.

"I Voted" stickers are seen on a table at the Veterans Memorial Leisure Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 3. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It’s become increasingly clear that Democrats lack the votes in the Senate to pass their dream elections bill, the behemoth known as S. 1. Before time runs out, they would be wise to come up with a backup plan that would not do as much but could still achieve significant progress in protecting the right to vote.

Frankly, it’s less important what specific election reforms Democrats can negotiate than that the Democrats find some common ground with Republicans. What the country needs now is a genuinely bipartisan statement of shared commitments on how electoral competition is supposed to operate.

Is it possible for a measure to attract the support of 10 Republicans? That’s a tall order in the current environment. But the universe includes the five who are retiring — Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) and Patrick J. Toomey (Penn.) — plus Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Ben Sasse (Neb.).

I’d strive for agreement on these four pillars of a workable democracy:

First, all eligible voters should have an adequate opportunity to cast a ballot that counts. This point doesn’t mean that Congress should mandate vote-by-mail for all, or that Congress should insist upon a specific number of days for early in-person voting. But Congress should create the baseline that every state must give all their eligible citizens a reasonable chance to participate in each congressional election.

Let Congress write that simple principle into federal law, and make it judicially enforceable. As shown by their track record in 2020, the current federal courts won’t run amok in demanding that states give Democratic plaintiffs every electoral reform they are unable to achieve legislatively. But if states fall below even this minimal standard of adequate access to a ballot, then it would be appropriate for federal judges — conservative as well as liberal — to enforce this elementary standard.

Second, all legally valid ballots should be counted in a transparent and bipartisan procedure so that there is no basis to repudiate the result. The greatest danger to democracy right now, as illustrated by the ersatz Arizona audit, is a one-sided manipulation of the counting process contrary to what the valid ballots actually show. Federal law can insist that, at least in congressional elections, the states count ballots properly, which means both sides get to participate and observe, so that there’s no reasonable doubt about the content of the ballots. Just as important — the actual count controls; neither side is entitled to disown the result simply because their candidate didn’t win.

Third, gerrymandering is the purposeful distortion of district boundaries in order to deprive voters of the legislative representation they prefer, and thus no congressional district should be distorted to the same degree as the original gerrymander. Congress doesn’t need to force states to adopt redistricting commissions. Instead, Congress should outlaw maps more misshapen than the Massachusetts district that, looking like a salamander, provoked the initial outcry against this abuse of power. While Democrats would prefer a standard based on factors other than a district’s shape, it would be better for Congress to adopt some constraint on partisan manipulation of districts rather than none.

Fourth, to win a seat in Congress, a candidate should receive a majority of votes cast in the November general election for that seat. Ten reasonable Republicans should realize that the current system, which permits a candidate to win a partisan primary and then prevail in the general election with only a plurality of votes, produces results contrary to what the majority of voters want — and threatens the Republican Party as well as the Republic itself. The fix is simple: Require majority winners in November.

These four pillars would provide a solid basis for fair electoral competition. It wouldn’t guarantee that the Democrats hold onto control of either the House or Senate in the 2022 midterms. But that should not be the point of any electoral reform law passed by Congress. Republicans, like Democrats, are entitled to win a fair fight.

If Senate Democrats waste any more time over their futile effort to enact S. 1, however, it will be too late to enact legislation that guarantees a fair fight for the midterms. District maps soon must be drawn. Partisan primaries must be held under existing rules if Congress fails to enact a majority-winner provision that would require states to rethink the relationship of primaries and the general election.

Senate Democrats are at risk of blowing their chance at meaningful electoral reform. Rather than ending up with nothing, because they spent too long trying to shoot the moon with S. 1, they should compromise with 10 reasonable Republicans on a set of simple measures to ensure that congressional elections genuinely implement voter preferences.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The GOP argument against election reform is even worse than you think

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Can Democrats beat the odds in 2022?

Edward B. Foley: Democrats have a chance to expand voter access. But they’re focusing on the wrong bill.

Jennifer Rubin: How to knock down the filibuster

Paul Waldman: The GOP is going hog-wild in the states. If only Democrats in D.C. did the same.