A year ago I wrote that we were “in a great fight for the future of American democracy. Nothing less.” As 2023 starts there is reason for hope.
2021 had begun with an insurrection. One-third of Americans rejected, without evidence, the results of the presidential election. Legislatures in several states were engaging in deliberate sabotage of future elections. Threats of violence chased election officials from their jobs and, in some cases, their homes.
Congress failed to act. Voting rights legislation passed the House and was supported by a majority in the Senate. It would have been the most important civil rights bill in years. But two senators refused to change the filibuster, and the bill failed.
But that was not the end of the story. In 2022, the forces of American democracy rallied.
Election officials, working with law enforcement and groups including the Brennan Center for Justice, were ready for disruption. But the midterm elections were smooth, fair, and calm — dare I say it, normal.
Election deniers were running to seize control of the machinery and set the terms of the 2024 election, running in battleground states for secretary of state or governor. Every one of them lost. Many ran behind other members of their ticket. An example: thousands of Nevadans supported the Republican candidate for governor who won but voted against the secretary of state candidate who said he would “fix” the 2024 election for Donald Trump.
In some states, voters backed innovative ballot measures. Connecticut adopted early voting. Michigan expanded early and absentee voting while improving identification requirements. Voters in Arizona by more than 70 percent backed curbs on dark money while rejecting a measure to impose harsher voter ID rules.
Last week, Congress voted to reform the fuzzily written 19th century Electoral Count Act with bipartisan support. The same bill included funding to upgrade election infrastructure and protect election officials. It’s not enough, but it will make a difference.
And throughout the year the January 6committee showed that Donald Trump’s Big Lie was a knowing lie.
If 2021 was a year American democracy stumbled, in 2022 it regained its footing. Yes, there’s a terrifying election denial movement. But there’s a democracy movement, too, diverse and strong and growing.
Our democracy continues to face extraordinary pressure.
The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether to undermine traditional checks and balances in American elections. Moore v. Harper will say whether state legislatures can gerrymander, suppress votes, and engage in election sabotage free from the constraints of their governors, courts, and state constitutions.
Since the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the racial turnout gap has widened in many states. In Georgia, while white voter turnout increased between 2018 and 2022, nonwhite voter turnout went down. This year the overall gap in turnout between white and nonwhite voters was 8.6 percentage points, 50 percent higher than in the last two midterms. We can’t say definitively why, but Georgia Senate Bill 202, which raised barriers to voting, is a prime suspect.
Big money plays a growing corrosive role. It threatens to overwhelm the encouraging rise of small donors. In the 2022 congressional races, the 100 largest donors collectively spent 60 percent more than every single small donor (those giving $200 or less) combined.
So, in 2023 and 2024, we have much to do.
Congress cannot relent in the drive to set national baseline standards and restore the Voting Rights Act. The measure failed last year, but it will prevail. Reformers must hold the flag high.
States can move forward with the next generation of reforms. As the New York Times reported yesterday, there are renewed efforts for automatic voter registration — a reform first proposed by the Brennan Center — and other positive ways to bolster participation.
We can do more to take on the role of big money. A ray of hope: New York just implemented its statewide small donor public financing system, the most important response to Citizens United anywhere in the country.
And there’s a growing drive for accountability of the U.S. Supreme Court itself. An 18-year term limit for justices is an idea with surprisingly wide bipartisan support. And the need for a binding ethics code for the Court is more evident every day.
I’m optimistic. Voters care — especially the small but critical bloc of swing voters. An October poll showed that 70 percent of Americans considered the future of our democracy an important factor for their vote.
Throughout most of the country’s history, candidates and causes have debated these very issues of power and voice. In the age of Trump those who want to tear down our democracy have been on the march. Now citizens of all parties who want to defend our democracy and make it work for all are on the march, too.
The fight for democracy is at the center of American politics, where it belongs. In 2023 let’s keep it there.