Last July, President Joe Biden addressed the nation from Philadelphia and declared that the continued attack on free and fair elections is “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” A year later, the attacks have continued, and the situation has become even more dire.
In our two-party system, it is common for there to be sharp divides on the big issues of the day. But increasingly, the parties differ on the basic foundations of our democracy — from one person, one vote to free and fair elections to the peaceful transfer of power. I was struck that a recent article in the Washington Post referred to me and others focused on the right to vote as “democracy advocates” without any trace of concern or irony. It is true that I am an advocate for democracy. But I am left asking, when did it become acceptable to oppose democracy?
Since President Biden gave that speech, Congress has considered several bills aimed at protecting the right to vote and preventing election subversion. Each one of them has been opposed by Republicans. Not just some Republicans, but literally every single Republican in Congress. In 2006, the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed 98-0 in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House. It was even signed into law by a Republican president.
Now, when it comes to the attack on our electoral process, Republicans do not pretend to care. Stories about the disenfranchisement of voters or plans to subvert election results do not even garner Republicans’ platitudes. The degradation of American democracy does not even warrant their cynical thoughts and prayers.
You might think that the mounting evidence showing that the Jan. 6 insurrection was part of a broader and ongoing effort to undermine democracy would cause Republicans to question whether there is a need to do more to protect it. But preventing election subversion is at odds with the GOP’s electoral strategy and so far, Republican loyalty to the party’s electoral prospects has outstripped loyalty to the country’s future.
While the two Republicans serving on the Jan. 6 committee, as well as several Republican witnesses called by the committee, have been vocal critics of Trump and his allies after the 2020 election, virtually all of them voted for him in that very election. The committee is undoubtedly exposing the truth about how we almost lost democracy on Jan. 6, but exposing past sins is not enough. Without strong action now, those sins will repeat themselves in future elections.
In that same speech in Philadelphia, President Biden predicted as much: “We’re going to face another test in 2022: a new wave of unprecedented voter suppression, and raw and sustained election subversion.” He added, “We have to prepare now.”
That was a year ago. We are not prepared. And congressional hearings alone will not make us prepared.
To prevent future attacks on democracy, we must first show that there is accountability for those involved — this includes criminal prosecutions where crimes have been committed. If you want to deter politicians from subverting elections and staging a coup in the future, start by prosecuting the politicians who tried to subvert an election and staged a failed coup in the past. Failing to prosecute those responsible for Jan. 6 will send an unmistakable signal to future seditionists that there will be no serious consequences.
But accountability for past conduct is not enough. We must focus on the actions taking place today that will weaken our democracy in the future. In state after state, Republican legislatures are weakening the right to vote and making election subversion easier. That was true last year when President Biden spoke in Philadelphia, it was true when Congress failed to enact voting rights legislation in January and it remains true today.
In just the last few weeks, the Arizona Legislature has enacted several new laws that will make registering to vote and voting more difficult. At the same time, the Arizona Republican Party is suing to block no-excuse mail-in voting, which has been extremely popular in the state for decades.
If we only focus on the past, then Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R) — who testified movingly before the Jan. 6 committee about how he resisted Trump’s suggestions to overturn the state’s presidential election results — looks like a hero to be celebrated. But, if we look at the future, we see that he leads a Republican Legislature that has consistently and repeatedly enacted discriminatory voting laws that will serve as the foundation for future efforts to subvert election results. Perhaps that explains why, after his testimony, he suggested that he would again vote for Trump if the former president became the Republican nominee for president in 2024.
Similarly in Georgia, if we look to the past we see Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) as the person who refused Trump’s request to “find” 11,000 votes for him that did not exist. But if we focus on the future, we see a secretary of state who supported the voter suppression and subversion legislation that led Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game out of Georgia in 2021. This law, Senate Bill 202, allows the partisan takeover of local election boards and permits unlimited challenges to voter eligibility.
It is easy for Democrats looking for an election villain to focus on Steve Bannon and his effort to recruit election deniers to work the polls and staff county election boards. He is a living caricature of a villain. However, it is a mistake to lionize those who are aiding the subversion of future elections simply because they refused to commit crimes in the past.
President Biden ended his Philadelphia speech by quoting the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D):
Freedom is not a state; it is an act.
We are heading towards a potential election crisis in 2022 or 2024 because, so far, we have failed to act. Congress failed to enact much needed election-protecting legislation because every Republican in Congress voted against it. Republican-controlled legislatures are rolling back voting rights and making it easier to undo election results if they do not approve of them. Most recently, Republicans are advancing a dangerous legal theory in the U.S. Supreme Court that would strip state courts of the power to review how state legislatures set federal election rules or select presidential electors.
Meanwhile, Democrats remain divided on how best to respond. While there is no simple answer, we must begin by being clear eyed and vocal about the threats facing our democracy. Watching hearings and hoping things will be different in 2022 and 2024 is not enough. Every one of us has the ability to speak out and act to protect our democracy.
Take to your own town square to be an active participant in the defense of democracy. For some that will mean posting on social media, for others it will mean talking to friends, family, customers and clients. Do not avoid the hard conversations; seek them out.
Then act by supporting candidates who are running to protect our democracy. If you are a Democrat who spent more time watching Rusty Bowers than helping Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) win her governor’s race, you are not acting to protect democracy. If you posted more about Raffensperger’s testimony before Congress than about Stacey Abrams (D) and her gubernatorial campaign in Georgia, then you are not acting to protect democracy.
With the midterm elections fast approaching, now is the time to stand up in every town square, spread this message and support the candidates who are fighting to protect free and fair elections in the future. Together we can make a difference. But only if we all act together and we all act now.