Lawmakers of both parties should have emerged from a rancorous 2020 presidential election determined to ensure that all Americans who want to cast ballots can do so, and that their votes will be counted impartially. Instead, Republican state leaders across the country have pushed to make voting harder and vote-counting more vulnerable to partisan pressure, citing concerns about essentially nonexistent fraud. Congress can preempt these state-level measures, but congressional Republicans have shown little interest in stemming their state-level colleagues’ anti-democratic behavior, or in making voting fairer and easier in states where Republicans are not raising new hurdles to the ballot box.
Democrats still have some options. Their initial attempt at passing voting legislation, the For the People Act, was a sprawling bill that contained such varied provisions as an ambitious public campaign financing scheme and judicial ethics requirements — that is, far more than simple voting improvements. This made it easy for Republicans to argue that the bill was not really about fair elections, but a broader Democratic social reform program.
Democrats should streamline the bill so it is more focused on voting provisions that no one committed to democracy should oppose, such as early voting requirements, universal voter registration, mail-in ballot standards, election security measures and other obvious reforms. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has already proposed a rough outline that even includes national voter-identification requirements, extending a hand to Republicans who have long pushed for voter ID. Democrats appear to be preparing a bill based on this framework, which may emerge this week, that they can bring to the Senate floor and dare Republicans to vote down.
If Republicans do that — in effect, expressing disinterest in the notion that an honest poll of public preferences should decide who rules, and approval of state GOP efforts to erode this principle — Democrats should consider reforming the Senate filibuster, which has transformed from a rare blocking maneuver into a routine instrument of obstruction.
Meanwhile, Democrats are preparing a massive infrastructure spending bill designed to bypass the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold, via the Senate’s complex reconciliation rules. They could add some voting provisions to that bill, though their scope would be strictly limited to taxing and spending provisions. In theory, Democrats could offer states money to improve their election systems on the condition they meet certain standards, such as offering a certain number of early voting days. But these measures may have limited impact. Many Republican-led states have already shown they are willing to ignore even massive federal incentives resembling this — think Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which states such as Florida and Texas have refused despite huge potential gains in public health and state financial stability. Still, it is worth a shot.
But stuffing a few voting measures into a reconciliation bill would be no substitute for setting broader national standards that all states must meet. The odds may be long, but Democrats must keep trying.