"The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some," Barack Obama observed four years ago in one of the more memorable lines from his farewell presidential address.
That is indeed our great historical tradition. And we have strong reasons to believe it will survive, and maybe our democracy along with it. That's thanks to our steadily diversifying demographics — and despite the currently loud chorus with a much narrower perception of the traditional American way of life.
That view is mainly rooted in a very different time, of course. In the 1950s, about 90 percent of the nation's people were non-Hispanic whites. Now, that figure is closer to 60 percent.
A survey released in February by the American Enterprise Institute, a generally conservative think tank, found more than half of Republicans (56 percent), a third of independents (35 percent) and one in five Democrats (22 percent) agree with the proposition: "The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it."
The pollsters apparently did not define what may be alarmingly fading away. But given recent events, especially that attack on the Capitol, for millions of those Republicans it's clearly the time when white was the nation's dominant color.
But many Democrats and independents, it's safe to assume, had something else in mind: a loss of faith in American institutions and decline in community common sense.
The unwillingness of so many to accept the clear-cut, fraud-free outcome of the 2020 presidential election underscores such a loss of confidence in American democracy. In the poll, 66 percent of Republicans said President Biden's victory was illegitimate and 73 percent said his election left them frightened, angered or disappointed.
And the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories defies common sense: Only three in 10 Republicans outright rejected the QAnon claim that Donald Trump spent his presidency fighting a global sex trafficking ring that included prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites. (A whopping 43 percent said they were uncertain, while 29 percent gave that fantasy some or total credence.)
However the "traditional American way of life" is defined, Black people and other minorities have not largely benefited. The fallout undeniably continues 125 years after the "separate but equal" doctrine sanctioning segregation was set by the Supreme Court. Segregation may now be illegal, but it still endures in practice in many areas of life, creating separate cultures that prevent Americans from knowing or understanding each other.
After George Floyd's death under Derek Chauvin's knee last year, at least one Black demonstrator declared: "We don't want revenge, we just want equality." Considering the egregiously unequal treatment of Black people by white people for so long, this limit to a protester's desire is heartening — and hopefully shared by many other members of minorities who harken to the nation's founding ideals.
But such an aspiration may not be realized, so long as the main interest of many white voters is repelling the "socialist horde" so as to bring back the "great" America of before.
Our nation's changing demographics should mean that, inevitably, those voices of fear and hatred will lose sway to the growing diverse chorus insisting on policies that more effectively promote equal treatment for all.
Countermanding that optimism are those who say the Constitution itself will stand in the way so long as the Senate is preserved in its current form.
Its balance of power has always been tilted to the smaller states, and some political analysts expect things could be dramatically out of whack in two decades: About 70 percent of the people — including most of the nation's Black, Latino and Asian population — will be packed into just 15 of the most urbanized states by 2040, they predict, and so will be allowed to choose only 30 senators. That would mean the disproportionately older, whiter, more rural and more male populations of the rest of the country would have the power to send 70 sympathetic politicians to dominate the Senate.
Another analysis undercuts this concern.
The nine most populous states — in order: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Georgia — are now home to 51 percent of us.
That's an almost completely different roster than the states that might be considered the homeland for the base of older, whiter and more rural voters: the 17 that joined last fall's Texas lawsuit, which got rejected out of hand by the Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the election. Except for Texas and two other similarly demographically changing and fast-growing anchors of the Sun Belt, Florida and Arizona, they are almost all in the predominantly white South and Midwest: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia.
That collection accounts for 17 percent of the population now. And demographers at the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Research Group project that share 20 years from now will be almost the same, 16.5 percent.
So they have 32 senators now and still will in two decades, which is a far cry from 70. That number is not close to the majority needed to pass legislation. Nor does it get close to the 41 votes necessary to sustain a filibuster and stop legislation.
Steadily rising numbers of non-white voters almost everywhere else are very likely to disprove those who fear control of Congress will belong indefinitely to the older, male-dominant and white-centric right. If anything, the nation may instead see growing strength on the left as multi-ethnic governance expands.
Demographics are destiny. In the next two decades and beyond, our democracy will be bettered by the other tradition, the one Obama described.
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Pildes is a professor of constitutional law at New York University.
One of the most heavily contested voting-policy issues in the 2020 election, in both the courts and the political arena, was the deadline for returning absentee ballots.
The policy in a majority of states was that ballots had to be received by election night to be valid. Lawsuits seeking extensions were brought around the country for two reasons: a massive, pandemic-induced surge in mailed ballots, and concerns about the competence and integrity of the Postal Service, particularly after President Donald Trump appointed a major GOP donor as postmaster general.
The issue produced the Supreme Court's most controversial decision during the general election, prohibiting federal courts from extending ballot-receipt deadlines in state law.
Ample data is now available, providing perspective on what the actual effects of these deadlines turned out to be.
Perhaps surprisingly, the number of ballots that came in too late to be valid was extremely small — regardless of what deadline states used, or how much that deadline shifted. The numbers were nowhere close to what could have changed the outcome of any significant race.
Take Wisconsin and Minnesota, important states and sites of major court controversies on this topic. In both, voters might be predicted to be the most confused about the deadline for returning absentee ballots, because they kept changing.
Wisconsin law required absentee ballots to be returned by election night. A federal district court ordered that deadline extended six days. But the Supreme Court voted 5-3 to require the state's deadline to be respected.
Writing for the dissenters, Justice Elena Kagan invoked the district court's prediction that as many as 100,000 would lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own, if the normal deadline had to be followed. Commentators called this a "disastrous ruling" that "would likely disenfranchise tens of thousands" in this key state.
A post-election audit now provides perspective: Only 1,045 absentee ballots were rejected for failing to meet the deadline — 0.05 percent of the 1.9 million valid absentee votes cast, or 0.03 percent of the total vote. If we take it that President Biden won roughly 70 percent of the absentee vote nationwide, that means he would have added 418 to his margin of victory had these ballots been valid.
The fight in Minnesota was even more convoluted. If voters were going to be confused anywhere about these deadlines, with lots of ballots coming in too late as a result, it might have been expected there.
State law required ballots be returned by election night. But as a result of litigation, the secretary of state had agreed ballots would be valid if received up to seven days later. Just five days before the election, though, a federal court pulled the rug out from under Minnesota voters. It held the secretary of state had violated the Constitution and had no power to extend the deadline. The original deadline thus snapped back into effect at the very last minute.
But only 802 absentee ballots out of 1.9 million cast (0.04 percent) were rejected for coming in too late.
So, even though voting rights plaintiffs lost close to Election Day in both with the deadlines shifting back and forth, only a tiny number of ballots arrived too late.
But what about states that had a consistent policy throughout the run-up to the election that required ballots to be returned by election night? Among battlegrounds, Michigan provides an example. Only 3,328 ballots arrived after Election Day, too late to be counted, or 0.09 percent of the total.
These decisions provoked intense political firestorms in some quarters. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's three-day extension became the primary justification that some Republican senators and representatives offered on Jan. 6 for objecting to counting the state's Electoral College votes.
But how many took advantage of these extensions? In North Carolina, according to information from the state Board of Elections, 2,484 ballots came in during the additional six days allowed — just 0.04 percent of the total valid votes.
The number was about 10,000 in Pennsylvania, out of 2.6 million absentee ballots — only 0.14 percent of the total there. These were not counted in the state's certified vote total. But had they been, Biden would likely have added around 5,000 votes to his winning margin, given that he won about three-quarters of the state's absentee vote.
These are not the numbers of ballots, of course, that would have come in late had the courts refused to extend the deadlines. They show the maximum number that arrived after Election Day, when voters had every right to return ballots this late. Even so, the totals are far lower than the 100,000 predicted in Wisconsin.
But had the statutory deadlines remained in place in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, there is no reason to think the number would have been much different from those in similar swing states like Michigan, where the statutory deadlines held and just 0.09 percent of ballots arrived too late.
These small numbers occurred despite a massive surge in absentee voting in nearly all states. What explains that?
Voters were highly engaged, as the turnout showed. They were particularly attuned to the risk of delays in the mail from seeing this problem occur in the primaries. Throughout the weeks before the election, voters were consistently returning absentee ballots at higher rates than in previous elections.
The communications efforts of the Biden campaign and the state Democratic parties, whose voters cast most of the absentee votes, got the message across about deadlines. Election officials did a good job of communicating these deadlines. In some states, drop boxes that permitted absentee ballots to be returned without using the mail might have helped minimize the number of late-arriving ballots, though we don't have any empirical analysis.
In a highly mobilized electorate, it turns out that specific ballot-return deadlines, and whether they shifted even late in the day, did not lead to large numbers of ballots coming in too late.
That's a tribute to voters, election officials, grassroots groups — and to the campaigns.
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Rotman is director of money in politics and ethics for Common Cause, one of the nation's oldest democracy reform advocacy organizations. From 2006 to 2011 she was the first director of Connecticut's public campaign financing program and before that was deputy general counsel of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
When working-class Americans embrace the possibilities born of democracy, it often highlights that our government of, by and for the people is a work in progress. This is certainly the case when it comes to empowering working-class Americans to compete for a congressional seat. Just ask Nabilah Islam.
Islam ran for Congress in Georgia last year without a living wage or medical insurance. The Federal Election Commission then lacked the quorum required to issue an advisory opinion, requested by the candidate, as to whether she could use campaign funds to pay for health insurance.
So Islam had to go without coverage while campaigning for elected office last spring, during the first surge of the Covid-19 pandemic. (She finished third in the Democratic primary for an open House seat north of Atlanta.)
This scenario was unsafe for her. And it was unhealthy for our democracy.
Congressional candidates who represent the diversity of America — Islam only recently turned 30 and would have been the state's first Muslim member of Congress — must be able to seek office in Washington without worrying about a living wage or health insurance. Only 2 percent of the members of Congress have working-class backgrounds, and millionaires make up more than half of Congress, even though they amount to fewer than 5 percent of the national population.
Consequently, public policy decisions made by Congress too often reflect the interests and preferences of the wealthy instead of the priorities and views of the vast majority of Americans. Historical economic inequity along the lines of race and gender has translated to a lack of political representation for Americans of color and women.
Big Money still determines who can run for office and win, and what elected officials must work on when they get into office. Possibility is born of democracy, but Big Money has our democracy in a stranglehold. We must make it easier for everyday Americans to represent us in Washington.
Islam is now petitioning the FEC, which finally has a quorum so it can resume regulating the campaign finance system, to make clear that candidates may tap their campaign accounts to pay for health insurance. She is also asking the agency to strengthen rules that have long allowed candidates to draw a limited salary from their campaigns while running for federal office; Islam wants the regulations altered to include a living-wage floor as part of the the salary formula to make the funds available from the beginning of a candidate's campaign.
This would be a great start toward elevating opportunities for working-class Americans to run for Congress, and my organization supports her petition enthusiastically.
We need to go even further. Congress must pass the For the People Act, which passed the House last month as HR 1 and is now awaiting debate in the Senate as S 1, because the legislation would help curb the dominance of wealthy special interests drowning out the voices of working-class people.
Our system is out of balance and wealthy special interests now use their power to amplify their own voices and drown out the voices of everyday Americans.
Small-donor programs such as the one included in the For the People Act, and the one I led in Connecticut, work to combat these inequities and elevate the policies that favor large swaths of everyday Americans. (The legislation in Congress would establish a voluntary public financing system for congressional candidates, under which donations up to $200 would be matched six-fold, so long as the candidates agreed to forswear almost all Big Money contributions.)
Following implementation of the Connecticut program, the state became the first in the nation to enact sweeping health care coverage for its service workers.
Real people have been excluded from democracy by a disproportionate number of millionaire members of Congress. Working Americans embody our nation's hope, possibility and promise.
These are the voices we need seeking elective office in Washington and across the country, and it is time we take every step necessary to end the millionaire's club. Nabilah Islam's efforts at the FEC are a great start.
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Dzieduszycka-Suinat is the president of the U.S. Vote Foundation, a nonprofit that works to ensure that all citizens become voters.
Outrage over the new Georgia law is warranted. It's an overt suppression scheme — aimed at Black voters, specifically, and overall turnout, generally. But before we give much more oxygen to the measure's red herring, criminalizing distribution of food and water to people in long lines at the polls, let's highlight its dangerous core: allowing elected officials to manipulate election outcomes.
An authoritarian handbook couldn't have delivered a more effective strategy.
Under the law, ostensibly enacted in response to a "significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems," the secretary of state is no longer chair of the State Election Board; that statewide elected official will be replaced by a "chairperson elected by the General Assembly." The board issues regulations governing elections, investigates fraud allegations and — significantly — it sets the rules on "what constitutes a vote and what will be counted as a vote."
Courtesy U.S. Vote Foundation
The Republican-majority legislature was no doubt inspired to write this section by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's failure to reconsider the 2020 presidential election's outcome — despite intense pressure to do so from a fellow Republican, the defeated President Donald Trump.
But there's more. Going forward, the state board may "suspend county or municipal superintendents" and appoint new people to temporarily act in their places.
Counties in Georgia, as in most states, hold great power; they register voters, maintain voter lists, conduct all of the ballot casting and then certify elections. Appoint someone who is too biased to take charge of a county election office, and suddenly the fox is guarding the hen house. Registration purges become heavy-handed, applications are put "on hold," recounts take place on shaky ground. And all these actions affect outcomes, potentially shifting the result of a close race.
Supporters of Georgia's new statute may say: "Look, don't worry, because the law restricts the state board from suspending any more than four county supervisors." But in the last election, seven of the 10 counties that swung the most heavily toward the Democrats in the entire country (compared with 2016) were in metro Atlanta. And President Biden carried five of them on his way to turning the state blue on the national map for the first time since 1992.
So, permission to control the elections in a majority of the state's pivotal counties means the GOP-dominated board will be close to controlling the whole election. The choice of four counties was no accident.
Indeed, no provision in the Georgia law looks to be more harmful to Black voters, and their historic 2020 turnout, or more fatal to democracy's survival.
Voter suppression in Georgia already relies on a bevy of tools to shape outcomes before they occur: strict ID laws, voter registration purges, shuttered polling places, partisan gerrymandering and unrestricted campaign contributions, to name only the most prominent.
If those tactics fail and the results in the ballot boxes still don't favor the suppressors — in Georgia or anywhere else — they have some back-end solutions, too: baseless lawsuits challenging the outcomes, calls from the powerful pressuring for "do-overs" and, as of Jan. 6, even a violent insurrection in the very seat of government.
After the last election, the evidence-free lawsuits didn't work, the calls for outcome flips went unheeded and the Capitol remained intact. So, when all else failed, it was time for the losers to start rewriting the rules.
This latest tactic is especially powerful. Whereas strict ID requirements — and other blatantly racist measures — often backfire by driving record numbers to the polls, some other laws force voters to question whether the process itself is legitimate and so whether they should bother participating.
Why show up when the system is stacked against you? When your ballot could get tossed on a political whim? Cultivating that skepticism and subsequent apathy is exactly what Georgian lawmakers had in mind. A citizen who feels powerless is a non-voter. And that's the most effective way to suppress the vote.
Tactics like this are used the world over. Like the Georgia lawmakers asserting "election integrity" concerns as their motive, military commanders in Myanmar asserted "voter fraud" as their justification in February for overturning an election and taking power.
To be sure, that democracy was relatively fresh and the people had already lived through military rule. But when there are breakdowns like the one in Georgia — when parts of the country become "laboratories of authoritarianism" rather than experiments in democracy — they potentially create a domino effect across the land.
Our centuries-old form of government will not necessarily die in one fell swoop. Its demise, like going broke, could happen slowly, slowly, then all at once.
But we can avoid a dangerous trajectory by passing a strong counter-measure: legislation to revive the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for almost half a century helped protect Black voters and other minority citizens from discriminatory election laws. A bill in Congress would update the system, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 as unconstitutionally outdated, requiring places with discriminatory voting rules to get federal permission before altering any election regulations.
Enacting the measure would mean states and counties would be judged not by their historic sins but by their current actions and intentions. Some states have shown they need the help.
Federal legislative fixes are essential, but they won't solve the problem alone. Lawmakers must be reminded that tables turn, and manipulative rules like those now on the books in Georgia can come back to haunt them.
And when that happens, parties don't just implode. Democracy as a whole self-combusts.
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