In May, the New York Times ran a story on the efforts by Democrats to “build a surefire legal strategy to block new Republican-backed restrictions on voting rights.” It was largely run by the DNC, and their goal was to influence Senate Democrats in the hope that it would spur an elections bill that would curtail the restrictions Republicans were passing or attempting to pass in places like Georgia that were rocked by Democratic victories in the 2020 election. In fact, as outlined in this WaPo piece, Republicans aren’t even really trying to hide their agenda:
“If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on Fox News on Nov. 8.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said much the same on Fox on Nov. 30: “If we accept this universal mail-out balloting to people who didn’t even request ballots, I don’t think Republicans will ever win another national election again.”
That argument eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court. In a key case, an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, Michael Carvin, was asked why the party had an interest in things like preventing the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct. His reason: winning elections.
“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” Carvin said in March. “Politics is a zero-sum game. And every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretation of Section 2 hurts us; it’s the difference between winning an election 50-49 and losing an election 51 to 50 [sic].”
Now, of course, we don’t have total transparency, as the accusations of widespread voter fraud prove. But there’s less of a veneer than ever before, which should, in theory, make it easier for Democrats to combat. Any political novice could write the message: Republicans can only win when people don’t vote, so they’re trying to keep you from voting.
And yet, it doesn’t really seem to be working. Take it from the Times:
For Democrats, the evidence of looming catastrophe mounts daily. Fourteen states, including politically competitive ones like Florida and Georgia, have enacted 22 laws to curtail early and mail-in ballots, limit polling places and empower partisans to police polling, then oversee the vote tally. Others are likely to follow, including Texas, with its huge share of House seats and electoral votes.
The end result of this could very well be a disastrous 2022 midterm election in which Republicans take back the House, re-take the Senate majority, and render Biden impotent. Meanwhile, they’d solidify their power to enact further restrictive laws which might swing the next presidential election.
So what are Democrats doing? And what can they do?
The answer to the first question appears to be “largely talking.” They seem to understand the scope of the problem, and are expressing in terms that they hope will shock the public into action.
“This is an incredibly dangerous moment, and I don’t think it’s being sufficiently realized as such,” Sen. Angus King said, in a tone reflective of the party’s general stance.
They’re saying it early, they’re saying it often, but of course Republicans are refusing to accept the premise, and counter that the Democrats are being hysterical and that they’re simply trying to ensure that citizens are confident about the authenticity of the vote. It’s a neat trick—spend months claiming that the only way you could lose is through corruption, and then, when you lose, use the hysteria you’ve bred in a certain sector of the population to make sure it never happens again.
And this, of course, gets to the central problem of a polarized nation. It’s very easy to gin up outrage in America in 2021, but it’s only easy with half the population. With the other half, it’s impossible, because your words are the words of the enemy. There is no neutral ground from which an ordinary citizen can view the argument; they’re looking at it through a hyper-polarized lens, and on those grounds aren’t going to deviate from the team.
So what can the Democrats do? Rhetorically, the answer is nothing. Yes, they can rail against the “reform” bills across the country, and yes, they can spread the word among their people, but they can’t control Republican state legislatures, and they can’t turn Trump supporters against the GOP, which means that fundamentally the rhetorical path leaves them stuck hoping and praying that they have enough numbers in the midterms, when there won’t be a Trump figure to specifically vote against.
It always comes back to power, and what the Democrats can do with it now that they have it. How’s that going? Well, it’s going like everything else the Democrats want to do—held up by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Joe Biden went as far as criticizing them for voting with Republicans, but these are shameless grifters, and the most they’ve gotten out of them is a cautious suggestion that maybe, maybe, Manchin would support a narrow federal elections bill modeled on the For the People Act…after rejecting the last one because it lacked Republican support. Thin gruel, indeed.
Democrats have the option of bringing the bill to a vote—they’ll take an initial vote next week—and hoping that the reality of standing alone will affect Manchin in some way by putting additional pressure on him. That’s a dubious one for a guy who has showed no compunction about being a road block, and who continues to think of the legislation as “divisive.” The other option is to give into his demands, but the pitfalls of that are either watering down the bill beyond recognition and rendering it fundamentally impotent, or alienating other Democrats to the point that any unity shatters.
That fact that they even have a chance stems from the victories by Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the 2020 Senate elections in Georgia, and there is great irony in the fact that if they do nothing, the road to giving them this slim advantage in the Senate could be blocked off for good. But it’s an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground in 2021. With the country so neatly and evenly divided, you can either take advantage of power when you have it, or fail to do so and soon lose it. There are no more clean fights, no more bipartisanship, no more good-faith negotiations. The wonder, then, is why Republicans seem so good at making use of their time in the sun, while the Democrats can’t quite figure it out. On this issue, in particular, they don’t have much time to turn it around, and the influence the Republican “reform” laws will have on future elections means that if they can’t take effective action, they could be digging the grave for their slim majorities.