Skip Navigation

As It Convenes a Global Democracy Summit, the United States Must Commit To Defending Democracy at Home

With the 2022 midterms looming, the window to pass necessary reforms is closing fast.

U.S. Capitol building
Associated Press

This article first appeared at Just Secur­ity.

Next week, the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion will convene a two-day virtual Summit for Demo­cracy. The summit will kick off a “year of action” inten­ded to buttress demo­cracy against the world­wide trend of rising author­it­ari­an­ism, culmin­at­ing in an in-person gath­er­ing in Decem­ber 2022. Pres­id­ent Biden deserves credit for making defense of demo­cracy a focal point of his foreign policy. But it will not be lost on any of the parti­cipants that demo­cratic values are under threat in the United States itself. Revers­ing this trend at home is crit­ical to main­tain­ing U.S. lead­er­ship abroad. There is a narrow window to pass the neces­sary changes in time for the 2022 midterms – but it is clos­ing fast.

Amer­ican demo­cracy has never been perfect. At its best, however, the United States has been a bastion for global demo­cratic values — as the widely respec­ted Inter­na­tional Insti­tute for Demo­cracy and Elect­oral Assist­ance (Inter­na­tional IDEA) recently noted in its annual survey of demo­cra­cies around the world. But this same report for the first time categor­ized the United States as a “back­slid­ing” demo­cracy, noting in partic­u­lar attacks by former Pres­id­ent Donald Trump and others on the legit­im­acy of our elec­tions.

In the months since the Janu­ary 6 insur­rec­tion at the U.S. Capitol, we have learned just how involved the former Pres­id­ent was in attempt­ing to over­turn the 2020 results. Those efforts failed, but they have given rise to a disturb­ing new push to sabot­age future elec­tions. Driven by the Big Lie – the false alleg­a­tion that Trump actu­ally won in 2020 but was denied victory by wide­spread voter fraud – partisan actors across the coun­try are taking steps to make it possible to over­turn future elec­tion results and raise addi­tional barri­ers to voting.

As law after law passes in the states, there has been no mean­ing­ful federal legis­lat­ive response. State legis­lat­ors around the coun­try are making it easier to manip­u­late future elec­tion outcomes and ignore voters. They are conduct­ing partisan “reviews” of 2020 elec­tion results that mislead­ingly cast doubt on offi­cial results with innu­endo and false­hoods. They are subject­ing elec­tion offi­cials to new crim­inal penal­ties for minor infrac­tions (making it easier to intim­id­ate and punish them). They are giving partisan actors power to seize control of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion outright in local juris­dic­tions. They are even float­ing bills to let state legis­latures simply over­turn elec­tion outcomes.

The not-so-impli­cit message under­ly­ing these efforts is that certi­fic­a­tion of the vote count, whether done by an elec­tion admin­is­trator or legis­lature, should be more than a minis­terial act, and that partisan actors should have the power to over­rule results they don’t like. Indeed, as the Wash­ing­ton Post and others have repor­ted, Trump allies who deny the legit­im­acy of the 2020 elec­tion are work­ing to place them­selves in key elec­tion posts around the coun­try. That includes a candid­ate for Secret­ary of State in Geor­gia, who expli­citly rejec­ted the 2020 certi­fic­a­tion; candid­ates in Michigan and Nevada, who have spread false claims of elec­tion fraud; and candid­ates in Arizona, one of whom has called for the 2020 outcome to be “decer­ti­fied and set aside.”

Proponents of the Big Lie are also among those driv­ing broader efforts to make voting harder. Between Janu­ary 1 and Septem­ber 27, 2021, a record 19 states passed 33 new laws restrict­ing voting access. These meas­ures frequently target voting meth­ods that Demo­crats and voters of color used in large numbers for the first time in 2020. For instance, a new Geor­gia law reduces the number of drop boxes for people to leave their mail ballots in the four major counties surround­ing Atlanta from 111 to 23, although some 305,000 voters used these boxes in 2020. Texas has crim­in­al­ized the common prac­tice of send­ing mail ballot applic­a­tions to all eligible voters (one of many new restric­tions). Other changes likely to dispar­ately affect voters of color and other vulner­able groups include harsher voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion require­ments, expan­sion of aggress­ive voter roll purges (which disen­fran­chise legit­im­ate voters far more than they prevent fraud), and reduc­tions in polling place access­ib­il­ity. This is only the latest in a series of efforts to restrict voting access since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the most import­ant safe­guards against racial discrim­in­a­tion in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (This year the Court issued another decision narrow­ing the Act’s remain­ing protec­tions.)

On top of voter suppres­sion, the United States remains the only developed demo­cracy to still give partisan legis­lat­ors the power to draw their own elect­oral districts, which is already produ­cing another round of extreme partisan gerry­manders that primar­ily target voters of color. Our crippled campaign finance system poses yet another set of chal­lenges — lax safe­guards have, among other things, made it easier for Amer­ica’s author­it­arian rivals to use foreign money to manip­u­late the U.S. elect­or­ate.

These are not simply domestic concerns. As a bipar­tisan pair of former national secur­ity offi­cials recently noted, Amer­ica’s global influ­ence rests squarely on the health of its demo­cracy, which for all its flaws has “stood as a model and inspir­a­tion for other coun­tries.” As the United States asks other coun­tries to step up and revital­ize their demo­cratic insti­tu­tions, it must do the same.

That requires more than prosec­ut­ing the Janu­ary 6 perpet­rat­ors or making minor legis­lat­ive or admin­is­trat­ive tweaks. The United States needs the compre­hens­ive over­haul that is embod­ied in two key bills pending before Congress: the Free­dom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. The former would curb partisan takeovers of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, sham “reviews” of elec­tion results, and other types of elec­tion sabot­age gain­ing trac­tion in the states. It would also set baseline national protec­tions for the right to vote and to have that vote coun­ted in federal elec­tions, end partisan gerry­man­der­ing of congres­sional districts, and over­haul the United States’ campaign finance system. The latter bill would restore and update the Voting Rights Act’s full protec­tions against racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting, restor­ing the protec­tions hollowed out by the Supreme Court’s recent decisions.

The Summit for Demo­cracy will convene just as the push to pass these two crit­ical bills is coming to a head. Having earlier been declared all but dead in the press, the push for federal legis­la­tion has made real progress, and now both bills have enough support to pass on an up-or-down vote. Stand­ing in the way is the Senate fili­buster — but that has been modi­fied many times in the past and could be changed again to restore the legis­lat­ive process while preserving — and even enhan­cing — debate and delib­er­a­tion in the Senate. With redis­trict­ing moving quickly and the first primar­ies of the 2022 general elec­tion less than three months away, time is running out. Getting these bills over the finish line is essen­tial if the United States is to truly reclaim the mantle of global lead­er­ship on demo­cracy to which the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion rightly aspires.