Democrats are desperately trying to figure out how to convince all of their members to fix Senate rules in order to pass two election and voting reform bills – the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — that they believe could be all that stands between us and a total meltdown of our system of government in the next two years.
On the Great Ideas Podcast with Matt Robison, top election reform expert Alex Tausanovitch of the Center for American Progress explained what the biggest threats to American democracy are, and how these bills would fix them.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Why is the situation so dangerous?
We only escaped a major political crisis in 2020 because a relatively small number of mostly Republican officials protected us. For example, in Michigan, we came very close to not actually certifying the results of the election. Only massive public pressure saved us from a total catastrophe.
Are things getting worse?
Yes. In 2020, there were multiple instances where there was intense pressure, particularly on Republican officials, to change the results of the election. A lot of them stood firm. They’re now receiving death threats. Angry activists are harassing them. The Republican Party is punishing them. Trump loyalists are challenging them in primaries. They will likely be replaced by people who don’t believe in protecting elections.
The other thing we are seeing is new laws aimed at election subversion. These are laws that allow partisan interference in the actual process of counting votes. Georgia is a great example of this. But there are at least 17 states that have passed these kinds of laws.
You say there are three broad categories of threats we face. What is the first, and how would the Democrats’ bills fix it?
Threat number one is that future election results will not be certified, like we nearly saw last time. Our certification process is different across each of our 50 states and our over 3000 counties.
One solution is to make those processes more uniform. We need federal legislation that says here’s the timeline for certifying the election, and a single official should certify based only on the actual results. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act addresses that. It also prohibits officials from willfully refusing to certify election results.
How about threat number two?
It’s becoming more and more difficult to do election administration jobs. There’s so much pressure on these officials. They are resigning or retiring. We are going to see a lot more people who are conspiracy theorists managing our election.
One of the critical things that the Freedom to Vote Act does is make sure that those officials can’t tamper with election results. For example, in Georgia, there is a new law that allows state level folks to replace local election officials and put partisans in place. The Freedom to Vote Act would prohibit replacing local election officials unless there is good cause. It also prevents harassment and intimidation of poll workers and election officials.
What is that third threat? And what would you do about it?
The third threat is that Congress might overturn the electoral college results. And the reason why we know this is a threat is that in 2020, a majority of Republicans in Congress voted not to certify the election results.
We have a very old statute called the Electoral Count Act that governs how Congress is supposed to review and accept the electoral college results. So we need to update that law, make sure we’re not dealing with frivolous objections or wacky legal theories like the legal memo the Trump lawyer gave to Vice President Mike Pence saying he could just ignore Electors and overturn the election.
As you look longer term, what should we be doing to try to protect American democracy if we manage to get past the current set of threats?
The difficult thing that we need to address is that a majority of Republicans in the public right now believe the Big Lie. Around 70% of Republicans say in polls that Joe Biden is not the legitimate President.
We need to have trust in our elections. Some places have used things like rank choice voting, which eliminates primaries that tend to favor more extreme candidates. We could also try instituting multi-candidate districts.
How hopeful are you about the system holding together?
I think we need to be vigilant. But I think we should also be hopeful. This is really our opportunity for this generation to do our part for democracy. We can’t take it for granted. There is a chance to make sure that democracy endures for future generations.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.