Is Democracy in Danger?

Legislators in 19 states have passed laws that weaken a pillar of democracy: the right to vote. Students examine this legislation and efforts by grassroots groups to protect and extend voting rights. 

To The Teacher

In the past year, a total of 34 laws restricting voting rights have been passed across 19 states, promoted by legislators who subscribe to false claims that the last presidential election was stolen. In the name of combating supposed fraud, state legislators have worked to weaken one of the pillars of democracy in the United States: the right to vote.

This lesson consists of two readings that examine growing threats to election integrity. The first reading examines disinformation and legislative campaigns to restrict voting rights. The second reading looks at efforts to protect voting rights and the work of grassroots groups mobilizing on this issue. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Voting Rights protest NYC
Photo: Michael Fleshman

Reading One

Is Democracy in Danger?

In the past year, a total of 34 laws restricting voting rights have been passed across 19 states. A small sampling of the new legislation includes laws that eliminate same-day registration on Election Day (Montana), reduce polling place hours (Iowa, Montana, Texas), limit early voting (Georgia, Iowa, Texas), and even ban giving snacks and water to voters waiting in line (Florida, Georgia).

The Brennan Center for Justice argues that, in at least some cases, such legislation “disproportionately burdens Latino, Black, and Asian voters and makes it harder for those who face language access barriers or who have disabilities to get help casting their ballots.” In addition, some legislators are introducing—and even passing—bills that make it more likely that election results could be overturned by partisan operatives.

These new laws have been promoted by legislators who spread former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the last presidential election was stolen. Despite an overwhelming lack of evidence for his assertions, Trump has persistently repeated this “Big Lie,” leading some of his most loyal supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol in a riot on January 6, 2021 that resulted in multiple fatalities.

Unfortunately, a large number of people appear to believe the false claims. According to a June 2021 poll conducted by Monmouth University and reported on CNN, a full 32% of respondents believed that President Joe Biden only won the 2020 election "due to voter fraud." In the name of combatting supposed fraud, state legislators have worked to weaken one of the pillars of democracy in the United States: the right to vote.

In a speech on January 11, 2022, President Biden noted that both Republicans and Democrats had supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strengthened enforcement of voting rights, and that in 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed 98 to 0 in a bipartisan Senate and was signed into law by Republican President George Bush. He implored Republicans to oppose current efforts to roll back voting rights.

In a January 2022 explainer piece for Al Jazeera titled “Is U.S. Democracy Really in Danger?” reporter William Roberts writes that the newly passed state laws “are more restrictive than any previous legislation since the Brennan Center began tracking state election bills in 2011. He writes:

Most worrisome for Democrats, Republican legislators in some states have passed new laws that would allow partisan officials to potentially interfere with election results.

For example, in Georgia following Trump’s surprise defeat there in 2020, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law giving it control over membership on local election boards, which would allow Republicans to decide who adjudicates which votes count and which do not in a disputed election.

“In a very close election, you might be able to put a little bit of a thumb on the scale,” Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, told Al Jazeera.

U.S. President Biden travelled to Georgia… to condemn the Georgia law in harsh terms, calling it a version of “Jim Crow 2.0” a reference to post-Civil War laws enacted in the South that disenfranchised Black voters. Those laws were not reversed until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

“This is nothing but punitive, designed to keep people from voting,” Biden told reporters at the White House.

Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who won election from Georgia last year, called the state’s new law “anti-democratic” and “un-American”.

“They are trying to make it harder for people to vote, rather than making it easier,” Warnock said.

While regulations that make it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote are concerning, perhaps more alarming are legal changes that affect how votes may be counted. Writing for The Guardian in December 2021, reporter Ed Pilkington outlines efforts to change the very way that elections are run. Pilkingon writes:

“We’re seeing an effort to hijack elections in this country, and ultimately, to take power away from the American people. If we don’t want politicians deciding our elections, we all need to start paying attention,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of the States United Democracy Center….

One of the key ways that Trump-inspired state lawmakers have tried to sabotage future elections is by changing the rules to give legislatures control over vote counts. In Pennsylvania, a bill passed in the wake of Trump’s defeat that sought to rewrite the state’s election law was vetoed by Democratic governor Tom Wolf.

Now hard-right lawmakers are trying to bypass Wolf’s veto power by proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the legislature the power to overrule the state’s chief elections officer and create a permanent audit of election counts subject to its own will.

In several states, nonpartisan election officials who for years have administered ballots impartially are being replaced by hyper-partisan conspiracy theorists and advocates of Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged. In Michigan, county Republican groups in eight of the 11 largest counties have systematically replaced professional administration officials with “stop the steal” extremists….

Jess Marsden, Counsel at Protect Democracy, said that the nationwide trend of state legislatures attempting to interfere with the work of nonpartisan election officials was gaining momentum. “It’s leading us down an anti-democratic path toward an election crisis,” she said.

In January 2022, New York Times reporters Richard Faussett and Michael Wines focused on the example of Georgia, where new legislation passed last spring has changed who controls local election boards, and therefore the voting process for everyday Americans. They write:

In six largely rural counties [in Georgia], the legislature gave conservative judges or Republican-dominated county commissions control of some or all appointments to local election boards. One of the newly constituted boards already has ended early voting on Sunday, a tradition among Democratic-leaning Black voters….

“They control who registers, whose ballots are counted,” said Helen Butler, a leader of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and a Democrat who was kicked off the Morgan County board in June. “There are a lot of things you can do to prevent people from exercising their right to vote, and the total control and access is there.”

Across the United States, numerous long-serving elections officials have retired or resigned, some due to verbal or written threats from Trump supporters. As control over election results move into increasingly partisan officials, the integrity of free and fair elections is being called into question.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what are some of the recent changes made to voting procedures in different states? Are there any that particularly concern you? Why or why not?
  1. How have the people you know experienced voting in your locality? Have they encountered any obstacles that might make this process difficult? What could make it easier?
  1. Do you think it is possible that, in the future, partisan election officials or representatives who control a state legislature might refuse to certify a state’s votes if they do not like the candidate who wins?
  2. Could the laws Republicans are now passing ultimately backfire on them by making the voting and certification process less fair and impartial?
  1. What might be ways to stop this kind of electoral crisis?


Reading Two

Efforts to Protect Voting Rights

Amid ongoing campaigns to restrict voting and make the administration of elections more partisan, some groups of lawmakers and concerned citizens, including young people, are working to push back and protect voting rights.

While the U.S. Congress has witnessed a number of efforts to strengthen voting protections, they have thus far failed to be enacted. One was President Biden’s Freedom to Vote Act, which, according to the New York Times, would have “establish nationwide standards for ballot access that aim to nullify new restrictions Republicans have imposed in states around the country following the 2020 elections.”

This bill was blocked by opponents in October 2021. Subsequently, the president launched an effort to suspend the filibuster—a rule that requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass any legislation—in order to pass federal voting rights legislation. However, in January, Democratic senators were unable to secure the 50 votes necessary to overcome the filibuster.

Despite these setbacks, some voting rights advocates have argued that the Biden administration could take steps forward using executive power. Last March, the president issued an Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting, which asks federal agencies to be actively involved in providing voter registration services as stated in the original National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Political analysts such as E.J. Dionne Jr., a Washington Post columnist and senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, have argued that this measure has not yet been vigorously implemented.

Other advocates believe that there are still options that could be pursued in Congress. Larry Diamond, senior fellow in global democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, argued in a recent New York Times op-ed that there exist measures that could yet draw bipartisan support, including reforming election laws to limit the risk of partisan actors deciding future election results. As Diamond writes:

This work is now taking shape in bipartisan negotiations among moderate senators convened by Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. The new bill would fix some of the most dangerous vulnerabilities in the 1887 Electoral Count Act — some of which we saw in the 2020 election — that could enable a future Congress (or a rogue vice president) to reverse the vote of the Electoral College in certain states or to plunge the process of counting electoral votes into such chaos that there would be no way of determining a legitimate winner. Such a deadlock could precipitate a far larger and more violent assault on the democratic order than what we saw on Jan. 6. Reducing the risk of such a calamity is a democratic imperative…

As the N.Y.U. election law expert Richard Pildes has written, federal election laws from the 19th century (the Presidential Election Day Act and the Electoral Count Act) contain provisions that could offer troubling opportunities for disruption and abuse during a postelection struggle over the presidential vote. The potential for a state legislature to declare a “failed election” and appoint its own slate of electors must be closed through a reformed law…. Mr. Pildes and three other leading electoral law experts from diverse ideological backgrounds recently proposed a reform of the Electoral Count Act that would prevent Congress from questioning a state’s electoral votes once the state certified them “through policies established in advance of the election.”….

So far, the Republican leaders of the Senate and House, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, have expressed openness to Electoral Count Act reform. Beyond such a bill, Republican senators such as Mitt Romney have also signaled an openness to considering some reforms on voting rights. 

In order to encourage lawmakers to strengthen voting protections, youth activists have worked to organize and share their views. As one example, a newly formed group named Un-PAC, which seeks to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, organized a 15-day hunger strike of approximately 20 college students in late 2021.

Reporter Kimberly Reeves of The Austin Chronicle covered their protests in December. She wrote that Un-PAC grew out of the youth movement surrounding Bernie Sanders' 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. She quotes Shana Gallagher, Sanders' Austin-based national youth coordinator, who describes Un-PAC’s mission to “harness the momentum around the top issues of young volunteers: expanded access to voting and the end of partisan gerrymandering.” Reeves writes:

While Un-PAC organized nationally, it drilled down to reach students in Arizona and West Virginia specifically, the home states of U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. The hunger strike began at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix and moved to D.C. after Un-PAC got a meeting with Sinema.

Bryce Lambeth, a junior finance major at Texas State University, volunteered to handle logistics, a glamorous title for the guy who got to shuttle hunger strikers to various locations. "I was working on Bernie's campaign a bit. Then Shana reached out to me and told me about the Freedom to Vote Act," Lambeth said. "After reading it, I was really excited about it. And I realized just how important it was." ….

"I was certainly inspired and grateful for the Democrats, but I think the important thing to point out is that it's unfortunate and depressing that democracy reform has become a partisan issue in the United States Senate and state legislatures around the country," Gallagher said. "We know that conservative voters overwhelmingly support the reforms within the Freedom to Vote Act. It's very unfortunate this has become a partisan issue."

Whether or not some manner of federal voting rights legislation passes in the near future remains an open question. But groups such as Un-PAC have expressed a resolve to continue raising awareness about this critical topic.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what has happened so far to proposals in Congress to strengthen voting protections? What might be some of the options for action that remain?
  1. Shana Gallagher, organizer and executive director of Un-PAC, stated that the youth organization is “non-partisan” or not biased towards any political party. Why do you think the issues surrounding voting have become so partisan in recent years? How do you think this should be addressed?
  1. What do you think about the organizing tactic of a hunger strike? Do you think this is an effective way to push for change? Why or why not? Are there sacrifices which others might consider extreme that you would make to advocate for something that you believe in?

Research assistance provided by Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.