Democracy in This America

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The Signal
Misdirection
Where are the real threats to voting rights and elections in the U.S.? Jessica Huseman on how Democratic legislative priorities are distracting from Republicans’ most consequential political initiatives.
“A turning point in this nation’s history.” That’s how U.S. President Joe Biden described the upcoming consideration of voting-rights bills in Congress in a speech on Tuesday. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice?” Biden asked, endorsing a “carve-out” exception to the Senate’s filibuster rules—which require a super-majority of 60 votes to advance most legislation—in order to pass the reform bills into law. But even as the president and other Democratic leaders intensify their advocacy, describing their legislation as a crucial defense against Republican attempts to suppress voting and undermine democracy, key Democratic senators remain opposed to the necessary changes to filibuster rules. How dire is the situation?
Jessica Huseman is a journalist who covers voting rights and election administration in the U.S. as the editorial director of the nonprofit organization Votebeat. As Huseman sees it, Democrats’ political strategy on these issues has been misguided and sometimes misleading. Republicans did pass state laws in 2021 that restrict voting at the margins, but these measures aren’t likely to yield a massive increase in voter suppression, a significant advantage for their party in future campaigns, or a smoother path to overturning the outcome of elections. Donald Trump and his allies may even be inadvertently depressing Republican voter turnout by pushing misinformation about a stolen election and portraying the election system as fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile, Huseman says, Democrats are failing to counteract a Republican effort that could imperil elections in 2024—the push to elect right-wing extremists as secretaries of state, county clerks, and other local election officials. Huseman believes Democrats have wasted time and effort pushing for federal legislation that isn’t going to pass and wouldn’t do anything to prevent a repeat of the events of January 6, 2021—while longstanding challenges persist with America’s underlying election infrastructure, from its lack of funding and outdated technology to aging machinery and security concerns.
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Graham Vyse: Just how much are U.S. voting and election systems in need of repair?
Jessica Huseman: Our infrastructure is absolutely crumbling. There are lots of states using technology that runs on Windows 7. There’s a significant security problem with voter registration, though it’s improved in the last couple of years. All of this has to do with the lack of funding going into elections, which is stunning. There was an insurrection last year, and we’ve still done nothing to shore up security or confidence.
Vyse: After Trump lost reelection in 2020—and then claimed he’d actually won—Republicans set out to pass voting restrictions and make other changes to the election systems in states across the country. What have they accomplished?
Huseman: I don’t think their work has been as targeted or effective as Democrats make it out to be. Bills passed in Texas, Georgia, and Florida certainly rolled back some voting rights on the margins. You now have to request an absentee ballot every year in Florida. The time for requesting absentee ballots is shrunk in Georgia. Texas hardly did anything in its legislation; there was really nothing to roll back except small changes Harris County was making. They did some strange things that make registering to vote a little more confusing, but these bills aren’t the voter suppression monsters Democrats have made them out to be. Part of the reason Democratic advocacy has been so weak and pointless is that Democrats don’t have huge changes to point to. They’ve made a bit of strategic miscalculation.
Vyse: You’re saying Republicans didn’t make big changes with their legislation, but what effects are these new laws likely to have?
Huseman: The most defined change will be in vote-by-mail. We’ll see a higher percentage of rejected mail ballots in places like Florida and Georgia. The thing I’m worried most about is changing rules not being appropriately conveyed to voters. The Florida and Georgia bills don’t have enough money for voter education about new rules and procedures put in place.
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More from Jessica Huseman at The Signal:
No state has fundamentally changed the way Electoral College votes are cast and counted. There are, however, a lot of extremists running in bad faith for local positions that would give them power over the way individual votes are cast and counted—county clerks and election administrators. These are people who can affect the validity of the vote count from the inside, or remove election equipment and therefore make the system more insecure, or change the way votes are objected to, throwing a local election result into confusion.”
We see polling showing that your average Republican thinks election security is a life-or-death issue, with the future of the United States of America hanging in the balance, but Democrats don’t rank democracy and election security at the top of their list of concerns. As a result, these Republican extremists running for local offices often don’t have good Democratic opponents. Democrats aren’t paying enough attention to this or rising up in equal measure to fight. It’s a lopsided local battle. While Democrats have been concerned about federal legislation that’s never going to pass, Republicans have come at this issue from the bottom up. Frankly, that’s the better political strategy, given that elections are locally run.”
Look at what happened on January 6th: A bunch of people successfully stormed the U.S. Capitol, which suggests some security issues, and a lot of Republican members of Congress objected to the count of Electoral College votes on an entirely specious basis. Nothing in the Democrats’ pet voting bills would address Capitol security or reform the way members of Congress object to Electoral College votes.”
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