On June 27, the Supreme Court issued one of the most consequential voting rights decisions in a generation, ruling that excessive partisan gerrymandering did not violate the Constitution.
Several Democrats running for president quickly criticized the decision in statements. But that night, as 10 of the candidates squared off in Miami for the second of the race’s initial debates, neither the moderators nor the candidates brought up the decision. The only mention of the topic came from Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who said, “We need to end gerrymandering in Washington. We need to end political gerrymandering in Washington.”
History repeated itself this week during two nights of debate among the Democrats in Detroit. Any number of voting rights questions would have been relevant ― especially given the locale. Last fall, Michigan voters used the ballot referendum process to create an independent redistricting commission and passed significant voting reforms. Activists see that success as a model for voting reforms moving forward. But on the day of the first debate night, Republicans filed a federal lawsuit to block the commission.
CNN’s Jake Tapper might have asked: How can Democrats limit excessive partisan gerrymandering in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. Or, do you think President Barack Obama bears blame for not doing enough to stem massive GOP gains in state legislative races in 2010, which enable Republicans to draw district lines for this decade that tilted the political field heavily ― crtics say unfairly ― in their favor?
But he didn’t. Neither did CNN colleagues Dana Bash or Don Lemon. Over the two nights, the debate moderators didn’t ask a single question about gerrymandering or voting rights.
The omission is not new. In the plethora of presidential debates during the 2016 campaign cycle, not a single question was asked about restrictions on voting rights, according to The Nation.
The lack of discussion about core issues for a democracy ― including ongoing concerns about voter suppression ― is even more surprising given the increased focus and understanding among the public about such matters. After decades of struggling to spotlight gerrymandering, for example, the Michigan redistricting measure passed with over 60% of the vote.
Activists say much of the disappointment in watching moderators ignore the voting rights topic is that it will be hard to make progress on such key items as expanded health care or immigration reform without fixing the structural matters that determine whose vote matters, said Jamie Lyons-Eddy, an official with Voters Not Politicians, the main group that pushed for creating Michigan’s independent redistricting commission.
“I don’t understand the reasoning, but I think it’s unfortunate,” she said.
Lyons-Eddy said the media has a “responsibility” to elevate the issue, and that she wants to hear the candidates detail their approaches to reining in partisan gerrymandering.
Part of the dilemma is that voting rights issues are complex and discussions of them don’t fit neatly into debate soundbites or easily pit candidates against one another, said Kat Calvin, founder of Spread The Vote, which works to increase voter turnout.
“There’s no really simple sexy way to do it. Nobody really understands what the Voting Rights Act is. ... When you say voting rights, it gets confusing,” Calvin said. “It’s very much considered to be just an issue that affects brown people and mostly just poor black people. Well, nobody really cares about issues that affect poor black people, poor brown people.”
“It’s not an issue that the candidates have to care about because it’s not something that most voters are going to ask them about,” she added. “By having the moderators ask the question, then everyone running has to talk about it.”
“It’s very much considered to be just an issue that affects brown people and mostly just poor black people. Well, nobody really cares about issues that affect poor black people, poor brown people.” Kat Calvin, founder of Spread the Vote
Several of the Democratic White House contenders embrace ideas like automatically registering voters, making Election Day a national holiday and expanding early voting. But Calvin said the candidates should be pressed on their strategy for getting these proposals enacted into law. A variety of voting rights reforms were approved by the Democratic-controlled House earlier this year, but the legislation has been stymied in the GOP-majority Senate.
Calvin also said the candidates should also be asked in debates how their campaigns would help people overcome barriers to voting on Election Day.
One disagreement on a voting issue has briefly emerged on the campaign trail ― whether people with felony convictions should be allowed to vote while in prison. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) fully backed the idea, while Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro said non-violent offenders should be able to vote while in jail. Former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said felons should be entitled to the franchise once they complete their sentences.
A more sweeping voting issue conspicuously missing from the debates has been any discussion of election security. This was particularly striking during the debates in Detroit, which came just a week after former special counsel Robert Mueller starkly warned in congressional testimony that Russians were still meddling in U.S. elections. The Senate Intelligence Committee also released the first volume of a report on election interference in the 2016 election and detailed how Russians targeted systems in all 50 states. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has blocked election security legislation in the Senate.
“If this was in the middle of the Cold War and we were facing a threat of some sort of nuclear attack, of course, that would be an issue that would be first and foremost in these debates,” said Susan Greenhalgh, vice president of programs at the National Election Defense Coalition. “I don’t want to overstate it, but this is not dissimilar, and yet it wasn’t addressed.”