The Time Is Now for Democrats To Save Democracy

A ringing alarm clock featuring the U.S. Senate Seal

The Senate being the Senate and Republicans being Republicans, it was always going to come down to this: Democrats alone need to save democracy.

It was nearly one year ago, Jan. 3, 2021, that the new Congress began. The violent insurrection was still three days away. Two Georgia Senate races were still undecided and headed for Jan. 5 runoff elections to determine control of the upper chamber. Yet, we already knew.

We knew that Donald Trump was not going to concede the election, that he was pressuring Republicans to ignore the election results and was stirring unrest among his loyal supporters. We knew that Trump and his allies had filed dozens of frivolous court actions to overturn the 2020 election results. Most importantly, we knew that Republicans were not going to speak out and pressure Trump to concede an election he clearly lost.

We may not have known that Trump and his cronies were plotting a coup and planning to storm the Capitol in a failed attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power, but we knew that Republicans were fully committed to the Big Lie and undermining democracy. In short, we knew that if democracy was going to be protected, Republicans would not help – Democrats would need to do it alone.

No sooner had President Biden been sworn in than when we saw Republican legislatures engage in performative authoritarianism to curry favor with the failed one-term president. First came the Arizona Legislature’s hiring of Cyber Ninjas. Not to be outdone, Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature hired an incompetent, former right-wing judge to conduct his review from a co-working space that housed a liposuction clinic. While these efforts made these state legislatures a laughingstock in some quarters, within the Republican Party, it made heroes of those looking to undermine future elections.

At the same time, a wave of new voter suppression legislation swept over states controlled by Republicans — first Iowa, then Georgia, Arkansas, Kansas, Montana, Florida and Texas. In each instance, Republicans claimed that they urgently needed to enact new restrictions on voting even though they had no evidence of fraud. Predictably, each new measure targeted minority and young voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said, “the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights.” It is every lawyer’s responsibility to defend democracy. Too few have. I am proud that last year my team participated in three dozen pro-democracy lawsuits in nearly two dozen states. We have won some and we have lost some, but most are still yet to be decided in advance of this November’s elections. But, there is a lot left to fight and with new state legislative sessions beginning this spring, there will be even more.

By last spring, it was clear that we needed additional tools to fight voter suppression and election subversion —  federal legislation. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it changed the landscape of voting rights for a generation. Now, after a conservative Supreme Court had weakened that law and with the Republican Party finding new and more aggressive ways to undermine elections, it is clear that new laws are needed. 

Democrats in the House drafted and passed the For the People Act, a law that would put in place minimum standards for voting rights that every state would need to adopt. It followed up by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and strengthen the 1965 law. Every single Republican in the House opposed both laws. This fall, the Senate reformulated the For the People legislation into a compromise bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) called the Freedom to Vote Act. Every single Republican in the Senate opposes this law.

With respect to voting rights, no one should utter a single word of criticism of any House or Senate Democrat without first condemning the Republican Party and every single one of its members in the House and Senate. If democracy fails, they will all be to blame.

That said, Democrats can pass these two vital bills if they are willing to go it alone. The only obstacle in the way of enactment of these laws is the Senate’s arcane filibuster rule. Ten months from the 2022 midterm elections, it is up to  Senate Democrats to decide whether to advance these pro-democracy laws alone or allow Republicans to use the filibuster as the weapon that murdered democracy.

If these two voting rights bills fail, our democracy will suffer and may never recover. Republicans in the states are working every single day to undermine free and fair elections. We are one or two elections away from a constitutional crisis where Republican anti-majoritarian efforts could create irrevocable damage. 

The time is now for Democrats to save democracy. There is no time left to waste.