Skip Navigation

The Movement for Democracy Reform Saved the Election

Turnout soared thanks in part to a range of efforts to expand access. But some serious challenges lie ahead.

November 16, 2020
Michael B. Thomas/Getty

Votes are still being coun­ted, but turnout in this month’s elec­tion is expec­ted to reach over 66 percent. That’s higher than it’s been since 1900, when Pres­id­ent William McKin­ley was re-elec­ted.

The chance to render a verdict on Donald Trump clearly drew out voters on both sides, but it isn’t the only reason for the surge. Also deserving credit is the broad-based move­ment that over the last five years has trans­formed access to voting in many states, both through policies that make it easier to cast a ballot, and through on-the-ground organ­iz­ing drives. Put differ­ently, in an elec­tion in which our demo­cracy itself really was on the ballot, the demo­cracy reform move­ment had a major impact — espe­cially in push­ing back against voter suppres­sion target­ing racial minor­it­ies.

Still, as we recog­nize that achieve­ment, we also need to look forward. Having an admin­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton that wants to expand, not restrict, voting and demo­cracy — or even just one that does­n’t oper­ate via a barrage of lies designed to under­mine confid­ence in our elec­tions — opens up a host of new oppor­tun­it­ies. But as we look to build on this momentum, there are plenty of chal­lenges lying ahead.

First, here’s why demo­cracy advoc­ates should be celeb­rat­ing: A Bloomberg News model ranks states by how much their turnout increased this year compared to 2016. And several of the states that saw the biggest jumps expan­ded access to mail voting recently. Hawai’i, which saw a stun­ning increase of nearly 14 percent­age points, the largest in the nation, passed a law in 2019 that ensured all registered voters were mailed a ballot. Two other states with big jumps, Montana, which saw the fourth largest increase, and Vermont (eighth), took the same step this year. South Caro­lina (tenth) and Michigan (11th) for the first time allowed no-excuse mail voting. Mean­while, Geor­gia (sixth), Wash­ing­ton (seventh), Vermont, and Michigan had imple­men­ted auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion since 2016, trans­form­ing access to the voter rolls (Michigan also added same-day regis­tra­tion).

Although some of the vote-by-mail reforms came in response to the pandemic, it’s doubt­ful that many states, both red and blue, would have acted as quickly and aggress­ively as they did if a power­ful pro-demo­cracy move­ment hadn’t made clear in recent years that voters care passion­ately about protect­ing and expand­ing access to the polls.

One more point that stands out from Bloomber­g’s data: It’s also likely not a coin­cid­ence that two top performers, Texas (fifth) and Geor­gia (sixth), saw well-funded and ener­getic grass­roots campaigns — led by Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams respect­ively — to register and mobil­ize new voters, espe­cially minor­it­ies and the young.

The obvi­ous conclu­sion from all this: Both policy changes that make voting easier and well-organ­ized grass­roots campaigns to bring new voters into the process are making a real differ­ence in expand­ing the prom­ise of demo­cracy — even in a pandemic. We’re on the right track.

It also was a relief that online misin­form­a­tion, though far from absent, appears to have played less of a role in deceiv­ing voters than it did in 2016, when racial minor­it­ies were partic­u­lar targets of this form of suppres­sion. That was in part a result of steps taken by Face­book and Twit­ter to crack down on fake news ­— which came only after concer­ted pres­sure from advoc­ates fight­ing for fair elec­tions.

But this isn’t the time to relax. By endlessly repeat­ing the lie that the elec­tion was stolen from him by illegal voting, Pres­id­ent Trump has likely cemen­ted the false view of a large chunk of his support­ers that fraud is a signi­fic­ant prob­lem, espe­cially for vote-by-mail. That could make it harder to keep expand­ing access, for instance by making no-excuse vote-by-mail a perman­ent policy, not just a tempor­ary response to the pandemic. In some states, it could even serve to rally support for harm­ful new restric­tions. Indeed, some Repub­lic­ans, aware that those who voted by mail this year were dispro­por­tion­ately Demo­crats, are already talk­ing about how to prevent it from becom­ing normal­ized.

“Mitch McCon­nell and I need to come up with an over­sight of mail-in ballot­ing,” Sen. Lind­sey Graham, a staunch Trump ally, said on Fox News soon after the elec­tion. “If we don’t do some­thing about voting by mail, we are going to lose the abil­ity to elect a Repub­lican in this coun­try.”

Another big chal­lenge will come on redis­trict­ing, whose next cycle begins in 2021. True, a combin­a­tion of voter-approved redis­trict­ing reforms, posit­ive court rulings and Demo­cratic gains since 2010 should mean that we see modest improve­ments in some of the states that saw the most extreme gerry­manders last time. But that’s a low bar. In this month’s elec­tions, Demo­crats tried but failed to flip state legis­lat­ive cham­bers in Texas, North Caro­lina, and Geor­gia, mean­ing Repub­lic­ans will retain sole control of the process in those states, as well as in Flor­ida and Missouri, among others.

And here, an even larger threat looms: that the Supreme Court could strike down inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions — the most prom­ising reform solu­tion out there — because they exclude the legis­lature from the process, as several of the justices want to do. If that were to happen, commis­sions like the one Virginia voters just approved this month, which do include a role for the legis­lature along with ordin­ary citizens, could become a model for at least some other states.

For now, though, we should take pride in the real­ity that, despite numer­ous seri­ous chal­lenges, the U.S. ulti­mately pulled off an elec­tion that was not only free and fair, but vibrant and some­times even joyful, and in which more people than ever parti­cip­ated. And that was thanks in part to those who for years have been fight­ing to make it happen.

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