The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is why Democrats should push hard on voting rights

President Biden and Vice President Harris disembark from Air Force One upon arrival at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Jan. 11. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Speaking in Atlanta on Tuesday, President Biden tried to reinvigorate Democrats’ push to pass two major voting-rights bills. “We want the people to rule,” Mr. Biden said, calling on Republicans to restore what used to be a bipartisan tradition of promoting access to the ballot box and, if they don’t, endorsing a change in Senate filibuster rules that would allow voting legislation to pass with a simple Senate majority.

Despite Mr. Biden’s stirring words, the legislation’s prospects are murky, at best. But the need is clear: In state after state, Republican legislatures have curbed voting access and chipped away at impartial election administration since Donald Trump began his campaign to discredit the democratic system that denied him a second term.

The scurrilous campaign continues. Partisan election “audits” are proceeding in swing states Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump allies in Michigan want their own investigation. Even in Texas, where Republicans swept elections in 2020, GOP lawmakers have forced a “full forensic audit.” Arizona Republicans are the inspiration for this folly, having run a shambolic, conspiracy theory-fueled review that found nothing that should prompt any doubt that Mr. Biden won Arizona but nevertheless inflamed unfounded doubts about the count. Polling indicates that most Republicans believe, wrongly, that Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory was illegitimate.

Republicans cite concerns about election integrity — which they have stoked — to justify new voting restrictions. Texas Republicans crimped mail-in voting, criminalized proactively helping people apply for absentee ballots and cracked down on expanded voting hours and other voting-access policies that Democratic-leaning counties instituted in 2020. Georgia Republicans cut the absentee ballot request window, drastically scaled back ballot drop boxes, banned distributing water to voters waiting in line and curtailed provisional ballots for people who show up to the wrong polling place. More may be on the way. For example, Michigan Republicans might be able to impose new voting restrictions over Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto, exploiting a strange loophole in the state constitution.

As bad as these measures are, the greatest threat to democracy is that partisan activists will use bogus fraud allegations to meddle with election results they do not like. Georgia lawmakers put themselves in charge of the state election board and gave it the power to suspend county election officials. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) called on the Republican state legislature to take over election administration in his state. Republicans purged a Michigan official who certified the 2020 vote totals there. Trump stalwarts are running for many state-level offices, including key election administration positions.

More Republicans have started to push back, in part because litigating 2020 would be a sour message in this year’s midterms. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Sunday that the 2020 election was fair. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) declared last week that there is “zero chance” the state legislature would take control of his state’s elections. Yet, in the same breath, Mr. Vos promised votes on new voting bills later this year, after a conservative former state supreme court justice concludes a slanted GOP-backed vote audit.

States should be required to meet basic national voting standards, offering early voting, absentee ballot access, automatic voter registration and protections for nonpartisan election workers. Some U.S. Senate Republicans have recently signaled interest in limited election reforms that would insulate elections from partisan subversion. They have had months to come to the table. If a bipartisan deal is to be had, now is the time for them to put up.

State-level Republicans claim that making it harder to vote will safeguard democracy. In fact, they are imperiling it. Democrats’ efforts to make voting fairer and less complicated — and to make it harder to overturn legitimate election results — is the aid U.S. democracy really needs.

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