Every day that goes by, the problem gets worse. To take just one front in the battle, this week the Texas legislature is back at work in an “emergency” session, the emergency being that too many people voted in the 2020 election. So they’ll be considering sweeping measures to make voting harder for people who might vote for Democrats, allow Republican activists to harass election officials, and create opportunities for judges to overturn elections that come out the wrong way.
And it’s not just in Texas, of course; Republicans all over the country are in the midst of a voter suppression frenzy, desperately changing state laws to enable them to win elections even when a majority of the voters prefer Democrats.
Right now we’re hearing a lot of statements of resolve and commitment from Democrats — “Democrats have shown we are fighters and we will not give up our right to vote,” says DNC chair Jaime Harrison — but what precisely are they going to do?
When you break down the alternatives, it’s a pretty grim picture:
Federal legislation. The Democrats have two important bills in Congress to address voting rights: The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore much of the federal preclearance of discriminatory voting laws that had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and the For the People Act, a much more comprehensive measure that would expand and guarantee access to the polls across the country.
Unfortunately, in the current Congress, neither one will pass. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has not only come out in opposition to the For the People Act, he has repeatedly promised (along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) to never harm a hair on the filibuster’s head, allowing Republicans to retain veto power over all legislation.
Which means the only way Democrats could pass either of those bills — or any other measure to protect voting rights — is if they expanded their Senate majority, then 50 of them agreed to reform the filibuster, and then they passed the bills. Might that happen after the 2022 midterm elections? Perhaps, but it’s not likely. So for now, federal legislation is a dead letter.
Legal challenges. Every new GOP voter suppression will be challenged in court; the trouble is that most of those challenges are doomed. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court is firmly committed to allowing Republicans at the state level to suppress Democratic votes, and that won’t change.
The Justice Department recently filed suit against the state of Georgia over its new voter suppression law, which was a very good thing. But the conservatives on the Supreme Court have now rendered the Voting Rights Act all but null and void. So the Justice Department will lose that lawsuit and the court will give a big thumbs-up to the Georgia law, and to almost any attempt by a Republican state to restrict voting rights.
That leaves state courts as the only place where a legal challenge to a voter suppression law might succeed — but only when a state supreme court isn’t controlled by conservatives and finds that a suppression law violates the state’s constitution. Those victories will be few and far between.
Strengthening voting rights in states Democrats control. That is already happening — but it doesn’t touch the suppression effort taking place in so many other states, which include comfortably red states and places such as Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, the states trending in Democrats’ direction where Republicans are working to hold power by restricting the vote.
Organizing, organizing, organizing. This is where we finally arrive, the only real chance Democrats have at winning the war for democracy. It doesn’t involve stopping voter suppression but overcoming it, by working so hard and getting so many people registered and to the polls that even with the suppression measures in place, Democrats can still manage to win (after which they can use the power they gain to roll back those suppression measures).
It’s the equivalent of running a 100-meter dash where you have to leap hurdles along the way but your opponent doesn’t. Can you win despite that disadvantage? If you’re good enough, maybe.
But it’s difficult, it’s labor-intensive, it takes effort extended for years, and Republicans are making it even harder. It’s more than waiting for your brilliant lawyers to win a case, or getting a billionaire to dump money into some TV ads the week before the election.
Democrats can make as many inspiring speeches about the threat to democracy as they want, but this is where they’ll win or lose: on the ground. It’s the only chance they’ve got.