How to Ensure This Never Happens AgainRoundup
tags: democracy, Electoral College, voting rights, 2020 Election
The path from the Nov. 3 election has been harrowing for American democracy. Though state and local officials ran clean, well-functioning elections, leaving no doubt that Joe Biden was the victor, President Trump and a sizable faction of Republicans in Congress have relentlessly tried to subvert the results. Their assault culminated in Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol, a physical attack on the home of our democracy, incited by the sitting president.
This dark reality owes much to Trump’s malign political style — his narcissism and demagogy, his willingness to sell lies to his political base — and to the ways that the Republican Party has fed his worst tendencies. But certain aspects of the electoral system also helped bring us to this point. With even the soon-to-be Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, now conceding that elections are not supposed to look like this, the months ahead may present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix what’s wrong with American democracy — or risk losing it altogether.
Generally speaking, politicians don’t like to run on a platform of small “d” democratic reforms. Structural change can seem abstract and the obstacles to success too great. But history shows that it can — and must — be done. In other fraught moments, under pressure from an outraged American public, politicians have managed to transcend party and regional divisions to strengthen the democratic process.
During the Progressive Era, Congress and the states approved two constitutional amendments that changed the nature of national elections. The first, ratified in 1913, allowed Americans to vote directly for their senators rather than leaving the choice to their state legislatures. The second was the 1920 women's suffrage amendment, which roughly doubled the size of the electorate.
By the 1960s, the civil rights movement finally forced Congress, with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to end the exclusion of most Black people from voting. A few years later, both parties reformed their primary systems to give their voters a real say in choosing their party’s presidential candidate. And in 1971, it took the states less than four months to ratify a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 in response to widespread protests over the Vietnam draft, which called up men starting at age 18.
Since then, bipartisan majorities in Congress have passed more technocratic but still useful reforms. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (also known as the motor voter law) required states to offer voter registration materials to people who get or renew a driver’s license or apply for public assistance. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 addressed meltdowns in the 2000 election — when an estimated four to six million ballots were not counted — by providing federal funds to replace faulty punch-card and lever-based balloting.
Now we are once more in dire need of reform. But some proposals will be far easier to enact than others, and each will require a different strategy. Here are some ideas for fixing what ails, from the most feasible in the short run to the biggest reach.
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