The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can Democrats make protecting democracy matter in 2022? This candidate says yes.

Josh Shapiro is running for governor of Pennsylvania after serving as the state's attorney general. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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Some Democrats have taken to suggesting that highlighting the GOP abandonment of democracy — and vowing to use one’s position to guard against it at all costs — might be devolving into one of those dreaded “process” issues that voters don’t care much about.

Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general who is running for governor this year, is not one of those Democrats.

Shapiro is set to roll out a new blueprint for protecting democracy on Thursday, the first anniversary of Jan. 6. His campaign is a test for whether a gubernatorial candidate can make the vow to employ institutional power in defense of democracy into an issue that motivates voters.

“Democracy and voting rights are on the ballot this year,” Shapiro told me. “We need a patriotic plan to defend our democracy. And that’s why it’s the first plan we are releasing in this campaign.”

Pennsylvania is a ripe place for such an effort. It was ground zero in Donald Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election, with the sitting president pressuring the state’s legislators to invalidate Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania electors, and dozens of House Republicans voting against counting them.

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What’s more, the leading GOP candidates for governor in Pennsylvania have variously lent support to the “Stop the Steal” rally that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection, pushed lurid absurdities about voter fraud, and endorsed phony audits of the 2020 results.

Pennsylvania, says Shapiro, “has really become the epicenter of the battle for our democracy.”

Against that murderers’ row of Trumpist wannabes, Shapiro is rolling out a new democracy plan. It includes a vow to veto any restrictions on vote-by-mail, to appoint elections officers who are committed to nonpartisan election administration, and to implement state-funded audits for each county to preclude private or partisan efforts to hijack the process.

The plan would also make voting easier with automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration through Election Day, and extended early in-person voting, among many other things.

Shapiro, unlike some other Democrats, appears eager to sharpen this contrast as aggressively as possible.

“Every single one of my opponents would sign bills undermining voting rights,” Shapiro told me. “I will veto any bill that restricts voting rights here in the Commonwealth.”

There’s an opportunity to argue that the stakes are even higher than this. The legislature in Pennsylvania will likely be controlled by Republicans next year — and in the aftermath of the 2024 presidential race — which means a Democratic governor will be a crucial bulwark against an effort to send rogue presidential electors if a Democrat wins the state in 2024.

At a time when some Democrats are already hinting that Jan. 6 is not a motivator of voters, Shapiro says he sees the possibility of an attempted coup rerun very much as an opportunity to galvanize them.

“My opponents have made clear that they will appoint secretaries of state who are beholden to the former president,” Shapiro told me. “The stakes could not be higher right now. And it starts with who you appoint as secretary of state.”

At a time of increasing GOP radicalization and infatuation with Trump, Shapiro noted the GOP legislature might try to manipulate the process by, say, passing a new law exerting additional control over sending presidential electors.

“The only thing stopping them from changing the certification process here in Pennsylvania would be my veto pen,” Shapiro said.

Of course, in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe tried to argue that Republican Glenn Youngkin would pose a similar threat to democracy, and lost. But this case is different.

First, Pennsylvania did see a concerted effort to flip the election, and Virginia didn’t. Second, as attorney general, Shapiro was in the thick of that battle, and is known statewide for having played that role.

At any rate, Shapiro appears willing to try to make the issue into a central one in the race.

“As I travel across the Commonwealth, Pennsylvanians are really worried about a lot right now, from covid to the economy to their kid’s education,” Shapiro says. “They should not have to worry about the instability of our democracy, too.”

“I see defending democracy as the very foundation for making progress on other issues that I know Pennsylvanians care about,” he added.

In this telling, the way to make the future of democracy matter viscerally for voters is to connect it to the possibilities for progress on other issues facing their lives, and even more broadly, to the prospects for maintaining a stable society. And to treat the fate of free and fair elections with the genuine and heartfelt conviction it deserves.