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.