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The Five Biggest Threats Our Democracy Faces

Trump will soon be gone — but this is still a moment of real danger for our system. Here’s why we can’t afford to relax.

December 15, 2020
Steven Puetzer/Getty

Despite an unpre­ced­en­ted range of threats, our demo­cracy survived 2020, and in a sense even thrived: turnout soared, voting went much more smoothly than feared — and Pres­id­ent Trump’s efforts to subvert the results have been laughed out of court.

So with Trump on his way out, the crisis is over, right? If only. We dodged a bullet this time around, but if any of several things had gone differ­ently — most obvi­ously, if the pres­id­en­tial race had been closer — we might not have been so lucky. The Trump era has both high­lighted and exacer­bated the real­ity that our demo­cracy may be a lot less secure than we’d like to think. And many of the reas­ons for that won’t disap­pear when Trump himself takes up full-time resid­ence at Mar-a-Lago.

So with a new year approach­ing, here are the five key threats that our demo­cracy will have to reckon with in 2021 and beyond:

Trump voters wrongly believe the elec­tion was rigged

This one could be the subject of a column on its own. The pres­id­ent’s barrage of false claims about voter fraud have convinced many of his support­ers — over three-quar­ters, by some meas­ures — that he was the true elec­tion winner, and that Pres­id­ent-Elect Joe Biden’s admin­is­tra­tion will be ille­git­im­ate.

With their voters in thrall to this lie, elec­ted Repub­lic­ans are acting like they believe it too: seven­teen red states (plus a few states that don’t even exist) and over half of the GOP members of the House signed on to Texas’s outland­ish lawsuit aimed at getting the Supreme Court to over­turn the results. The GOP state Senate leader in Pennsylvania said that if she had publicly opposed a letter that has a similar goal, signed by 64 of her Repub­lican colleagues, “I’d get my house bombed.”

It’s hard to over­state the damage this will do if exten­ded across the next four years. For starters, if the GOP holds the Senate, the basic cooper­a­tion needed for a func­tion­ing govern­ment figures to deteri­or­ate even further than it already has, spur­ring yet more distrust and cynicism about govern­ment. But it’s much worse than that. A party that believes it was cheated out of the pres­id­ency is all but certain to carry out its own anti-demo­cratic rule-break­ing in response. The doomed efforts to keep Trump in office are likely to be just the start.

Vote suppress­ors are ready­ing a push for a new round of state voting restric­tions

The robust turnout that demo­cracy advoc­ates are celeb­rat­ing has spooked some politi­cians who’d prefer a smal­ler elect­or­ate. Seiz­ing on the same base­less fraud claims that Trump has promoted, support­ers of voting restric­tions are already talk­ing about the need to crack down.

Legis­lat­ors in Geor­gia and Pennsylvania have signaled they plan to advance meas­ures making it harder to vote, and in Texas nearly a dozen bills have already been filed. Mail-in voting, which many states expan­ded this year in response to the pandemic, is most clearly in lawmakers’ crosshairs, with bills expec­ted to make it harder to get an absentee ballot, ban drop-boxes, and disen­fran­chise voters whose ballots arrive late, among other steps. But other forms of voting could also be affected: One U.S. senator has even called for a nation­wide voter ID law.

Gerry­man­der­ing could skew elec­tions in many states for another decade

The upcom­ing redis­trict­ing cycle, set to kick off early next year, could also strike a major blow against fair elec­tions.

To be sure, some of the states that saw the most extreme partisan gerry­manders last cycle may get fairer maps this time, either because they passed reforms to the process or because they now have divided govern­ment, giving both parties a seat at the table. But in other states — includ­ing Texas, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Missouri, Iowa, and North Caro­lina (which does have divided govern­ment, but gives the governor no role in the process) — partisan lawmakers will have a more or less free hand to draw maps for the bene­fit of them­selves and their party rather than voters.

Indeed, they could be even more emboldened, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last year find­ing that the federal courts can’t inter­vene in partisan gerry­man­der­ing disputes.

And speak­ing of the Supreme Court

The justices have so far declined to get behind Trump’s bid to reverse the elec­tion. But before we get compla­cent, remem­ber that there were four votes (not includ­ing Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who had just joined the court and recused herself) for the radic­ally anti-voter posi­tion that Amer­ic­ans should be disen­fran­chised if their ballots arrived late but were post­marked by Elec­tion Day, as was allowed when they voted. In that light, it’s not hard to imagine the Court taking new steps to limit voting rights — perhaps by narrow­ing the scope of the Voting Rights Act still further so as to bar only the most blatant inten­tional discrim­in­a­tion, which is exceed­ingly diffi­cult to prove.

There are also fears the court could strike down as uncon­sti­tu­tional the inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions that are perhaps the most prom­ising tool to stop gerry­man­der­ing — maybe even by embra­cing the truly radical theory that state legis­latures have essen­tially sover­eign power to set voting rules.

Beyond these specific poten­tial rulings, two-thirds of the justices have now been appoin­ted by a party that’s won the most votes just once in the last eight pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. The very exist­ence of a court that’s both so power­ful and so far out of step with public opin­ion under­mines the demo­cratic values on which our system rests.

Before the elec­tion, a range of ideas for reform­ing the court were finally being discussed. But given the Senate results — no matter what happens with the Geor­gia runoffs — those reforms are now off the table for the fore­see­able future.

Our other undemo­cratic insti­tu­tions are no closer to being fixed, either

Simil­arly, the Senate results have all but ended talk of adding the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to the union. That means the Senate will continue to give small states, which tend to be rural and conser­vat­ive, far more clout than their size deserves. That’s not just a prob­lem for demo­cracy in the abstract. Because these states are more likely to support Repub­lic­ans, it gives the GOP a built-in advant­age, and makes it all but impossible to achieve large-scale progress­ive outcomes in Wash­ing­ton, even those that are popu­lar.

Mean­while, unlike in 2016 and 2000, the candid­ate who got the most votes won this year’s elec­tion. But a change of fewer than 50,000 total votes spread across Wiscon­sin, Geor­gia, and Arizona would have changed that, with Trump winning despite getting nearly 7 million fewer votes and losing the popu­lar vote by nearly 5 points — a much wider gap than we’ve ever had to contem­plate before. As with the Senate, the Elect­oral College skews pres­id­en­tial results to the right by priv­ileging small states, and it’s likely to cause another demo­cratic disaster again soon. With the parties as polar­ized as they are, it’s never been more urgent to ensure that the candid­ate suppor­ted by the most voters becomes pres­id­ent.

Perhaps more import­ant than any single one of these threats is the way in which they rein­force one another. The refusal of many Trump back­ers to accept the elec­tion results, for instance, makes new voter suppres­sion efforts in the states only more likely. And we could more easily curb voter suppres­sion, as well as gerry­man­der­ing, if we had a Supreme Court that was more in step with the views of most Amer­ic­ans and cared more about prior­it­iz­ing demo­cracy. And so on.

So getting rid of Trump was an enorm­ous and crucial step forward in protect­ing and poten­tially strength­en­ing our demo­cracy. But the idea, so long take for gran­ted, that the rule of the people should be concrete and mean­ing­ful, still faces a moment of real peril. This is no time to stop fight­ing.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.