The year following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a disastrous one for American democracy. Republicans spent months codifying the riot’s aims into dozens of new state laws restricting voting rights and exerting new partisan powers over elections, playing up old conspiracy theories and fomenting new ones, and potentially setting the stage for even more drastic attempts to undermine elections and democracy.
The year ahead may be even worse. And if Senate Democrats don’t take momentous action — and soon — a crisis may become a calamity.
Emboldened by the ease with which they’ve overhauled election laws in the states and their ability to block federal reform legislation in Washington, Republicans are planning to escalate nearly every aspect of their anti-democratic assault in 2022.
Republican state lawmakers have already pre-filed or carried over more than 100 legislative proposals to further restrict voting rights and erode democracy. The GOP has set its sights on major election victories in November’s midterms, with the aim of retaking Congress, winning back governor’s mansions in key swing states, and replacing secretaries of state who thwarted efforts to overturn the 2020 election with people who believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump. And its relentless lies and conspiracy theories have inspired a rash of violent threats against local lawmakers and election officials.
The combination seems certain to place the country’s democracy under the sort of stress it hasn’t faced in generations: Experts like David Becker, the CEO of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, worry that the tinderbox Republicans have built will explode — either into renewed efforts to overturn elections, violent insurrections in the states, or perhaps both.
The question is whether Democrats — and Senate Democrats, in particular — will move to counter the GOP onslaught in ways they did not in 2021, when two major federal election reform bills remained on the back burner for months despite claims from party leaders and President Joe Biden that they were a top priority. If the Senate doesn’t change its filibuster rules and pass the stalled legislation soon, the United States’ current backslide toward authoritarianism may only speed up.
“I am as concerned as I ever have been,” Becker said during a media briefing Tuesday. “And every day that goes by I only become more concerned that we are heading toward something that our democracy has never had to deal with before.”
Most Democrats did not sit idle while Republicans turned the conspiratorial energy that fueled the Capitol riots into a legislative assault on American democracy. Every Democratic-controlled state legislature except Rhode Island’s, in fact, passed laws to expand voting rights in 2021, and U.S. House Democrats approved two sweeping voting and election reform bills last year.
But those bills have languished in the Senate, as Biden and Senate leaders prioritized a bipartisan infrastructure package (which passed) and the Build Back Better plan (a major social spending proposal that still hasn’t).
Their inaction has fueled concerns and even panic among state-level lawmakers, voting rights advocates, and other key Democratic allies that Democrats may not meet the moment in 2022, either.
“You prove it through your actions,” said Texas state Rep. Ron Reynolds, one of the Democrats who fled his state last summer in an attempt to stop Republicans from passing a restrictive voting bill. “There was urgency on infrastructure, but voting is the infrastructure of our democracy. I don’t see urgency for federal voting rights.”
An Obvious But Uncertain Path Forward
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Monday that Democrats would hold another vote on the Freedom to Vote Act, which includes federal voting standards that would invalidate many of the GOP’s harshest new state laws, in January. And if Republicans continue to block it, Schumer said, he would also stage a vote to reform the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rules that prevent passage via Democrats’ simple majority. Schumer said Democrats would move on the legislation no later than Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17.
Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) sees Schumer’s decision to set a hard deadline as a positive development that will finally generate the urgency people like Reynolds ― and the House Democrats who passed versions of both voting and election bills last year ― have been calling for.
“We didn’t have a deadline before, and we weren’t moving forward in a real way on changes to the filibuster,” Williams said. “I am optimistic that we will get this done because there’s too much at stake.”
Filibuster reform is the only path forward for the voting bills, which have not received the Republican support to pass under current Senate rules. But it’s still unclear whether Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — both of whom remain skeptical of such reforms — would support any of the potential changes Democrats have floated.
And although Biden reiterated support for filibuster reform to pass voting rights and other democracy-related legislation before Christmas, it remains to be seen whether the president is willing to put the full-court press on two senators whose votes he also needs to pass the Build Back Better plan.
Biden, Reynolds said, “hasn’t used the bully pulpit [to be] as forceful as he can. I know it’s a sensitive issue, but come on man, you’re the president of the United States. This is on your watch. This is your legacy. This is your moment.”
Civil rights leaders have similarly urged Biden, who will call for the passage of the voting bills in Atlanta next week, to ramp up pressure the way he has for other legislative priorities.
“You delivered for bridges,” Martin Luther King III said during a news conference Wednesday. “Now deliver for our voting rights.”
Democrats’ major bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is named for the late congressman and civil rights leader — would not solve all of the problems plaguing its beleaguered democracy, or perhaps even the most urgent.
But they are both practically and politically important. The John Lewis bill’s reauthorization and expansion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act would reestablish the federal government’s authority to protect voting rights in states with especially discriminatory histories. The Freedom to Vote Act’s federal standards for voting rights, its provisions to limit partisan gerrymandering, and its efforts to protect election officials and thwart election subversion would establish key democratic safeguards.
Municipal elections in Georgia last year offered an early look at what the landscape might look like without those protections, after its GOP-controlled legislature passed a new voting law that limited the use of drop boxes, expanded ID requirements for mail-in ballots, and shortened registration and absentee ballot request windows. The changes caused confusion among many voters during the state’s municipal elections last fall, Williams said.
“I got call after call from people looking for drop boxes that have been removed or that were only available during business hours, and people who were saying they didn’t have enough time to submit their absentee ballot request because the time frame was shortened,” Williams said. “There’s a real impact on people that are trying to [have] free and fair access to the ballot.”
Failure of the voting rights bills would leave the nation’s most vulnerable voters — Black people, Latinos, college students, people with disabilities, Native Americans, and others — susceptible to even harsher attacks on voting rights. And it would render the Department of Justice, which has sued both Georgia and Texas over new voting laws but is unlikely to prevail in either, largely powerless to defend those voters thanks to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act’s most powerful oversight provisions.
Without those laws, Republicans would essentially have free rein to continue their state-level assault. All indications are that they plan to do just that.
A Radical Takeover
By early December, Republican lawmakers in four states had already pre-filed 13 bills to restrict voting access for the 2022 legislative session, while 88 such bills that were filed last year but failed to pass will carry over to this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of those bills follow the contours of the more than 30 restrictive laws GOP state legislatures passed last year: They target mail-in voting, shorten windows for registering to vote or requesting an absentee ballot, ramp up voter ID requirements, ban the use of drop boxes and other pandemic-inspired voting changes, or criminalize election practices.
“The playbook is basically three things. Change the rules, change the players, so you can change the outcome.”
The scope and scale of the GOP’s proposals will rapidly expand when legislatures begin to reconvene this month, with plans that are likely to become even more blatantly anti-democratic.
In 2021, Republicans in Arizona, Missouri and Texas all proposed such legislation that would allow state legislatures to overturn the outcome of an election. Some Georgia Republicans considered asserting that power — which rests on a conservative legal theory that state legislatures have ultimate power to decide elections — after Trump lost the state in 2020. Election observers fear the idea will gain even more reach this year, and that one or multiple legislatures could attempt to codify such power into law.
“It’s the new en vogue idea,” said Joanna Lydgate, the CEO of States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that has advocated for democracy protection measures across the country.
“The playbook is basically three things,” Lydgate said. “Change the rules, change the players, so you can change the outcome.”
The 2022 elections are the focal point of the “change the players” aspect of that strategy: The GOP and its right-wing allies have already waged a concerted effort to purge election officials and replace them with Trump allies who believe the 2020 election was stolen. The midterms will give them the chance to defeat Democratic governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who have vetoed anti-democratic bills from GOP legislatures. And Republicans have also placed unprecedented focus on secretary of state races, with the goal of taking over top elections offices ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The Freedom to Vote Act would counter many of the tactics the GOP has turned to in order to threaten the integrity of elections: It makes it harder to purge state and local election officials for partisan reasons, places new limits on the use of partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters or election officials, and creates new crimes for doxxing and harassing election officials or interfering with vote counting or certification efforts.
Democrats have also considered rewriting the the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the federal law Trump targeted in his attempt to overturn the election on Jan. 6, 2021, to further safeguard the 2024 election.
Without such changes, Republican success in the midterms could further endanger the prospects of a free and fair election in 2024, or create mass uncertainty about the outcome that makes an effort like Trump’s far more likely to succeed.
A Message To Voters
Democrats have lined up strong candidates for key gubernatorial, secretary of state and other statewide races. But grassroots organizers stress that the White House and Senate Democrats cannot rely entirely on attractive candidates to deliver their response to the GOP, or on the Democratic base to protect the nation’s democracy.
“It’s frustrating, because we know that there’s an expectation that grassroots organizations are going to be able to do what we did in 2020, and that is out-organize the other side,” said Kendra Cotton, the chief operating officer of the New Georgia Project, a progressive group that helped turn out voters en masse during the 2020 election. “What we are trying to relay to the folks in D.C. is that the landscape has changed since 2020. There was a negative, visceral reaction to the successes that were had during that time. And so they changed the rules.”
Failure to respond to the GOP’s attacks with federal legislation, meanwhile, may hurt Democrats’ chances next year: Recent polls already indicate that Democrats’ inclination to seek a return to normal has failed to convince both independents and their own voters that the Trumpist GOP is the threat to democracy that many experts see it as ― Republican voters, in fact, are more likely to consider Democrats an existential threat than vice versa.
It could also leave key Democratic constituencies feeling as if the party is unwilling to defend them from the GOP. Such warning signs are already flashing in Georgia, where the GOP enacted one of its harshest laws targeting Black and other minority voters last year.
Biden won the votes of nearly 90% of Black Georgia voters in 2020. By November 2021, his approval among them had fallen to just 66%, a poll conducted by New Georgia Project and HIT Strategies found. A bare majority of 51% of Black voters said they approved of the job Biden was doing to address the needs of Black Americans, while 43% disapproved.
The poll suggested that Biden’s falling ratings are hurting popular Democrats who will be on the ballot in Georgia this year. It found that Sen. Raphael Warnock’s approval rating had fallen 8 percentage points, to 63%, among Black Georgia voters since 2020. Former state Rep. Stacey Abrams, who is running against Gov. Brian Kemp (R) this year, has seen her approval rating among Black voters fall from 87% to 73%, according to the survey. Just 46% of Black voters in the survey said they felt their votes were extremely powerful, compared to 73% ahead of the 2020 election.
The numbers may rebound as election season heats up, especially for Warnock and Abrams, who have both been at the forefront of Democratic efforts to protect and expand voting rights.
But Democrats’ message in Georgia was that electing Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D) would help them deliver on Biden’s agenda, and their inability to do so — not just on voting issues but on other key promises Biden made during his campaign — could be enough to erase Democrats’ slim margins in the state, and power Republican election skeptics like former Georgia football star Herschel Walker, who is running against Warnock, or Rep. Jody Hice, who twice voted to overturn the 2020 election and is now running for secretary of state, to victory.
“I don’t know how to go to the doors, or what we’re going to have our canvassers tell folks this time around,” Cotton said. “We don’t have student loan forgiveness. We don’t have voting rights. We don’t have Build Back Better and all the things that bill encompasses that would help marginalized communities. A lot of things have been promised, and 12 months have ticked by and still nothing. What do you go to the doors and tell folks?”
In December, a coalition of more than 30 progressive groups launched a campaign urging their supporters to make thousands of daily calls to the White House to insist that he make voting rights the party’s top priority in the new year. And many activists remain hopeful — perhaps even cautiously optimistic — that Democrats will make the rule changes necessary to pass the bills.
Civil rights groups, including King III’s Drum Major Institute and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, plan to hold another round of marches in both Washington and Phoenix to call for voting rights and filibuster reform around Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And they aren’t likely to let Democrats, including Biden, off the hook because the Senate math is a bit difficult.
Failing to pass the legislation before Jan. 17 would make “a mockery” of the holiday honoring King, Sharpton told reporters Wednesday. And Wade Henderson, the interim president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, decried the “role of the filibuster in abetting those who are hostile to civil rights.”
“As one columnist wrote decades ago, the filibuster is the gravedigger of civil rights,” Henderson said. “Arcane Senate rules must not be a barrier to the ballot box, or used as a tool to undermine democracy.”
Additional reforms, including some that face similar barriers to passage and others more radical than anyone in power is willing to consider, are necessary to truly bolster the country’s democracy: In the United States’ political system, there’s only so much federal bills like those Democrats are considering can do if one party — and one party that has major structural political advantages at that — decides to put basic democracy in its crosshairs.
But the changes Democrats are weighing would codify important protections into law. And they would signal that, a year after the Capitol insurrection, Democrats in Washington are at least, and at last, willing to join the fight.