Don’t Forget the Fundamentals

The U.S. Capitol, with a page from H.R.1, For The People Act sticking out of the top of the building

A democracy agenda for 2021 will have to fight on many different fronts. One of the most fundamental fights ahead may also be the one most often ignored.

There are, of course, the obvious challenges. Jurisdictions with a history of fighting back against their own voters have responded to the 2020 election with a surge of restrictive bills to change the rules of the electoral process. 

Beyond laws about casting and counting ballots, 2021 is also a redistricting year. Jurisdictions will be redrawing federal, state and local district lines, determining the representation we all receive. And this redistricting cycle will be the first in 60 years without the preclearance protections of the Voting Rights Act, which stopped jurisdictions with the most troubled record of race relations from enacting disenfranchising election laws before they took effect. Without this protection, it will take more time and resources than ever to ensure racial equity in the district lines.

But democracy is not just about defense.

Federal legislation on the horizon would attempt to correct some of these persistent problems. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, is a thoughtful and expansive bill tackling a number of issues, including important advances for registration, voting, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics. It has passed the House and now heads to the Senate. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would help restore and enhance the Voting Rights Act’s protections from racial discrimination. The Native American Voting Rights Act would help ensure adequate electoral access for tribal populations, including in some of the most challenging terrain in the country. Voting rights for citizens in D.C. and the territories is long overdue. Congress can and should be engaging, with power and purpose—not to drive unilateral federal control, but to set a new national baseline.

But democracy is not just about offense either.

I want to call attention to a fight that is more basic, more mundane and more frequently overlooked—but no less essential. It does not truly feel like “offense” or “defense,” but basic infrastructure maintenance, inherent in the system no matter the partisan strategy. Neglect it, and the bottom drops out in a hurry.

The 2020 elections saw no shortage of disturbing harbingers. But an underappreciated source of alarm is that local election officials, faced with an unprecedented disruption due to a once-in-a-century pandemic, went begging for the basic funding they needed to keep the lights on in the heart of a storm. And they were, far too often, ignored by legislators who should have known better.

With astonishing creativity, making stone soup from volunteers and scraps and a last-minute shower of private philanthropy, local administrators pulled off an election that was remarkably smooth given the even more remarkably adverse circumstances. As in so many arenas in 2020, too many voters had to struggle for too many basics—but without superhuman local efforts, it could have been so, so much worse.

But local election officials—and volunteers who worked with them—were rewarded for their efforts with death threats fueled by a barrage of misinformation. They sought out bipartisan validation, from politicians who knew the results were reliable, and who had benefited from the clean elections they had mustered. And they were, far too often, ignored by legislators who should have known better. Ignored, that is, when the legislators did not themselves throw fuel on the raging dumpster fire.

This casual disdain for and pronounced neglect of civic basics is a national crisis in deep need of immediate repair. At its heart, election administration is customer service—and we, the people, are the customers. We get the service we value and the service we pay for. And it’s not hard to foresee what we’ll get when we turn our backs on both. Many local officials with long records of nonpartisan commitment and substantial institutional knowledge have already announced that they’re leaving office after last year’s elections, as budgets shrink and threats expand. It’s hard to blame them.

A democracy agenda for the coming cycle, and well beyond, has to include a renewed focus on these fundamentals. We need to replace voting systems that were purchased after the 2000 election—6 years before the first iPhone—and that are now well past the end of their lifespan. We need to invest in systems better able to ensure that registration lists are fully complete, secure, and continually up to date, and that tallies and audits are swift, thorough and reliable. We need to fund outreach and information materials, in-language, and recruit a roster of committed poll workers. And we need the job of running the election process to be desirable, to attract and retain the talent that benefits us all. We need to make sure that we pay more than the minimum for a democracy that deserves more than the minimum—as if we actually meant it when we’re describing the elections we say that we want. 

Justin Levitt is a law professor and Gerald T. McLaughlin Fellow at Loyola Law School. He was previously the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where his work focused on voting rights and protections against employment discrimination.