The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Democratic Senate candidates can put democracy on the ballot

Demonstrators hold signs at a rally for the For the People Act in front of the Supreme Court in June 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
3 min

While the White House has rightly focused on the economy, the multi-pronged crisis of democracy has not abated. Laws to suppress voting and subvert elections have taken root, the Supreme Court is working to rewrite voting rights and 2020 election deniers are on the ballot in dozens of races.

Democratic Senate candidates would be wise to zero in on these efforts. They should make the GOP’s campaign to diminish the rights of millions of Americans a central issue of the midterm elections.

With few exceptions, Republican Senate incumbents have repeatedly voted to block debate on voting rights; cheered the prospect of stripping women’s constitutional protection against forced births; countenanced the defeated former president’s attempted coup (by, among other things, acquitting him in the second impeachment trial); and refused to consider reasonable police reforms despite ample evidence of systematic abuse. These are not popular positions, but thanks to the filibuster, Republicans have stymied bipartisan attempts at reform.

A savvy Democratic Senate candidate would run on a “restore democracy” platform aimed to empower voters. Such a campaign would begin with a commitment to reform the filibuster to overcome resistance from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. However the reform is styled (e.g., demanding that cloture opponents physically hold the Senate floor, carving out exceptions for constitutional issues), the goal would be the same: The Senate minority should not be able to block reforms that protect or restore constitutional rights.

Democrats would be wise to be specific about the types of reforms achievable. As public opposition to forced births surges, they should pledge to provide federal statutory protection for access to abortion (favored by more than 60 percent of voters). Meanwhile, a limited package of voting reforms (e.g., protection for election workers, nonpartisan redistricting, reauthorization of the preclearance process under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) can be coupled with clarification of the Electoral Count Act to reaffirm the vice president’s limited role, prevent losers from soliciting phony alternative slates and raising the number of lawmakers needed to challenge electoral votes.

Among the most important reforms would be a redesign of the Supreme Court, which has self-destructed as a result of unbridled disregard for precedent, abuse of the so-called shadow docket and the justices’ refusal to adopt the strict ethics code applicable to other federal court judges. The court’s credibility has dropped like a stone, and court reform enjoys an astounding level of support, with 67 percent of voters favoring term limits and 74 percent supporting a mandatory code of ethics.

Democratic candidates should also consider a widely popular reform proposal floated by the presidential commission on the Supreme Court. While the commission’s members could not reach consensus on solutions, it noted that “[p]roposals for staggered eighteen-year terms ... would ensure that all Presidents have the opportunity to appoint two Justices to the Supreme Court in each term they serve. This predictability, proponents argue, would strike a more appropriate balance than the current system between two important features of our constitutional system of checks and balances: judicial independence on the one hand and long-term responsiveness of the judiciary to our democratic system of representation on the other.” Such a reform would provide relief from justices motivated by partisan zealotry and reduce the stakes of court confirmation fights.

In short, Democrats should enthusiastically take on Republican senators’ obstruction, disdain for democratic principles and radical mission to deprive millions of Americans fundamental rights. The system “doesn’t work,” largely because an extreme right-wing minority is holding the Constitution hostage and the Supreme Court has run amok. Vowing to return voters to power would be constitutionally sound and politically wise.