The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Republicans benefit from being united against protecting democracy

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to the media on Jan. 4. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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As Democrats once again debate whether to end the filibuster to pass protections for democracy, a deeply perverse dynamic has taken hold, one in which Republicans enjoy a hidden benefit from being entirely united against such protections.

Precisely because this GOP opposition is a foregone conclusion, Republicans are too rarely asked by reporters to justify it. This in turn causes that opposition to become accepted as a natural, unalterable, indelibly baked-in backstop condition of political life.

That opposition fades into the background as a factor in what’s happening. It faces less serious scrutiny, and the story that’s foregrounded is that Democratic infighting is the only reason for congressional inaction.

We just saw this play out with great clarity. On Tuesday, Democrats faced questions about their new plan to hold a vote in the next two weeks on potentially suspending the filibuster to pass a package of democracy protections.

As expected, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) reiterated his opposition to suspending the filibuster for that purpose, though he signaled potential openness to other less dramatic changes.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared that the Senate will nonetheless hold a vote on Jan. 17 on whether to change the rules. Schumer conceded that this remains an “uphill fight.”

In other words, the vote to change the rules, which is designed to get Manchin to declare his position once and for all, will likely fail. Which will doom protections for democracy and voting rights.

What will be played down in this story as it is broadcast across the land is the role of blanket Republican opposition in sinking those democracy protections.

Look at it this way. The current Democratic package is called the Freedom to Vote Act. This proposal has a lot of individual provisions in it. But how often does media coverage dissect why Republicans oppose each provision? To wit:

  • The bill establishes a national standard for early voting. Republicans do not often articulate an objection to early voting per se; instead they usually say a national standard would “nationalize elections,” which doesn’t say what’s wrong with the standard.
  • The bill would require same-day registration, which is now in place in more than 20 states, including some GOP-led ones. Republicans claim it enables widespread fraud, but are unable to produce any evidence that it does.
  • The bill would require states to allow no-excuse absentee voting. Despite claims otherwise, there is no evidence that mail voting advantages either party. It simply makes voting easier for everyone who chooses to take advantage of it.
  • The bill would make Election Day a federal holiday. It also seeks to guard against election subversion by making it difficult for partisan state officials to remove election officials except for cause, and makes it a crime to threaten or intimidate them. Republican objections to both these ideas are unclear, or if they do exist, you rarely hear about them via mainstream news outlets.

Generally speaking, even if Republican objections to such provisions are driven by the idea that anything that increases voter turnout will necessarily help Democrats, evidence has demonstrated that this is simply false. And at any rate, all GOP objections could be the subject of negotiation if they would only engage and negotiate.

Or take the idea of reforming the Electoral Count Act to tighten up ambiguities that Donald Trump tried to exploit to subvert the 2020 election, potentially averting a rerun. Reporters on Tuesday pressed Schumer on whether he’d support only reforming the legislation without any other protections, and he demurred. It’s an odd question, since no one is calling for only ECA reform.

But that aside, shouldn’t the bulk of questioning be directed at Republican senators to determine why they won’t support doing reform at all?

After all, on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) practically burst out laughing at the very idea that GOP state legislatures might send rogue presidential electors to try to swing a future presidential election.

Any Republican who wouldn’t dream of countenancing such a scheme – as McConnell implied is the case with most Republicans – should want reform of the ECA. It would mean this scheme would be less likely to be attempted – since it would be harder to pull off – in the future.

That would mean Republicans would be less likely to come under pressure to execute that scheme again. Isn’t that something they should want? Yet Republicans are rarely asked to explain their opposition to even this no-brainer of a reform.

Republican opposition to all these things, of course, probably enjoys widespread support among GOP voters, though much of that opposition probably isn’t all that substantive. But when it comes to middle-of-the-road voters, many of whom would personally benefit from such reforms, the main story they’ll hear is that some vague set of disagreements among Democrats is why nothing is happening.

As for the role of GOP opposition in producing this state of affairs, well, they might never hear much about it at all.

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