The public's access to electoral democracy may be about to dangerously contract — or else expand dramatically.
So far, the movement to restrict access to the ballot box has gotten by far the most play. The Georgia law enacted to national headlines last week goes way beyond barring water deliveries at polling places, in part by setting a disturbing precedent in stripping administrative power from nonpartisan election officials and placing it in the hands of politicians. Broad new curbs on voting in Iowa, enacted three week ago, include criminal charges for local officials who skirt the new rules. Six other states are considering similar moves to take power from nonpartisan election administrators.
Less noticed, meanwhile, has been a parallel movement to expand voter access in states literally from coast to coast.
The most widely cited statistic in this year's voting rights debate is that, as of a month ago, 253 bills to restrict access to the polls had been proposed in 43 states. Many take aim at early and absentee voting, automatic voter registration, ballot drop boxes and other practices that helped fuel last fall's record turnout.
But the same progressive think tank that made that calculation, the Brennan Center for Justice, has also tallied 704 bills that set out to expand voting access — also in 43 states. These include Washington's recent move to restore voting rights to felons as soon as they're released from prison, a Kentucky measure to make permanent the early and mail-in voting rules rolled out last year in response to the pandemic, and bills in Vermont and Virginia that similarly institutionalize ballot drop boxes and prepaid postage on absentee envelopes.
Republicans driving the restrictive legislation say the curbs are needed to restore voter confidence and combat fraud, despite zero evidence of the widespread cheating claimed by former President Donald Trump. Democrats from President Biden on down cast the GOP campaign as a return to Jim Crow and an assault on democracy. Voting rights groups have raised alarms that the Republican statehouse crusade is not only a deliberate effort to disenfranchise Black voters but also would threaten the principle of independent election administration that's long been a democratic norm.
The GOP-led push, moreover, has lit a fire under Democrats mobilizing behind the sweeping package of democracy reforms passed by the House under the label HR 1 and pending in the Senate as S 1. That legislation would significantly expand access to the polls by mandating nationally the easy registration, absentee ballot application and early in-person voting rules that vary significantly among the states.
But it would also do much more, from prohibiting partisan gerrymandering to imposing broad new campaign financing and government ethics rules. Republicans are uniformly opposed and have cast the measure as a partisan power grab, while deep-pocketed conservative groups have turned the campaign to defeat the bill into a GOP rallying cry.
But recent polling concludes the measure, known as the For the People Act, is "one of the most popular legislative items in recent history, across party lines, demographic groups, and geographies." Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of Republicans support the bill, according to a survey this month by Global Strategy Group and ALG Research, as do 73 percent of independents and 96 percent of Democrats.
Senate support for the bill, which recently secured crucial albeit only partial backing from the most conservative Democratic senator, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, is also strengthening Democrats' determination to eliminate or substantially weaken the filibuster. The showdown over the future of what amounts to a 60-vote requirement for most policy changes, however, seems to be months away.
If enacted, the bill would invalidate much of the new wave of GOP voting restrictions and create broad new federal mandates for automatic and same-day voter registration, voting machines with paper trails and post-prison felon enfranchisement, among other provisions.
This, despite the fact that many of the voting practices that GOP state legislators have set out to scrap or curtail — most notably lengthy periods for early in-person voting and easy rules for voting absentee or by mail — are broadly popular with Republican voters. Close to half of all votes (46 percent) were cast absentee or by mail in the presidential election last year, more than double the share in 2016. No-excuse voting by mail is permitted in 29 states, many of them deep Republican red. Last year, several GOP governors and election officials moved to expand voting by mail, even as Trump assailed it as an invitation to massive cheating (and then casting his own ballot using Florida's permissive system.)
Several provisions in HR 1 originated as bipartisan initiatives, according to a white paper released by the Campaign Legal Center, including modernizing registration and early voting, and putting the drawing of all House districts in the hands of 50 independent commissions.
The nonprofit, which promotes easier voting and stricter money-in-politics rules, is working with state and local partners to educate voters about how their franchise might be curtailed if many of the Republican statehouse bills get enacted.
"These are unpopular provisions," says Jonathan Diaz, the Campaign Legal Center's legal counsel for voting rights. "They run contrary to the security of our democracy."
Republican-aligned activist groups, from Heritage Action to Tea Party Nation, are raising and spending big money in the fight over voter access. But beyond fundraising, it's not clear that restricting voting will turn out to be a winning strategy for the GOP. Trump actually got more support in 2020 than in 2016 from Black and Latino voters — the very groups that many of the looming restrictions risk disenfranchising.
"What's surprising is how seemingly short-sighted they might be," Elise Wirkus, legislative affairs manager for the democracy reform advocacy group Issue One, said of the GOP-proposed voting curbs. "What I don't think we know yet is how limiting early voting or vote by mail could hurt Republican voter access down the line."
Issue One (which started but remains journalistically independent from The Fulcrum) has convened a bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity in hopes of finding common ground on election integrity. The group will host a forum next week on "How State Voting Proposals Could Impact How Millions of Americans Vote."
Among the issues that could bring Republicans and Democrats together, says Wirkus, is the need to increase funding for election administration. Some democracy advocates joined Republicans in raising questions about the private funding from executives at Facebook and elsewhere that helped underwrite 2020 election administration and voting infrastructure. At the same time, some big businesses — including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, both headquartered in Atlanta — have expressed opposition to Georgia's new voter restrictions.
The more aggressively Republicans have moved to restrict ballot access, in other words, the more Democrats have stepped up their campaign to expand it. At the state level, the outcome may be a patchwork of laws that make it much easier to participate in democracy in some states but much harder in others. On Capitol Hill, the high-stakes fight over HR 1 has brought the voting wars to a crucial turning point.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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To bemoan the trials faced by members of Congress these days may seem naïve, even perverse.
The lawmakers on Capitol Hill represent one of the most hated classes in American public life. If service in Congress has become polarized, fruitless and even dangerous, anti-government rhetoric from Capitol Hill ideologues is at least partly to blame. Public approval for Congress stands at just 25 percent — up a few points from last month, but still well below most public institutions.
Yet it is fair to say that House members and senators are in the throes of an existential, electoral and institutional crisis.
The mob assault on the Capitol is over but the death threats continue, and congressional aides are leaving the Hill in droves. So are many lawmakers, including relative moderates like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, one of four Republican senators who have already announced they won't run again in 2022.
A delay in the release of detailed census data that has now stretched to five months, into September, will significantly delay the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts — leaving dozens of incumbents as well as their potential challengers in the dark about where they will even run their campaigns and when they can get started.
As Steve Israel, a former congressman who once ran the House Democrats' campaign operation, told Politico, you "have your players lined up," but "you don't know where the field begins and ends."
Renewed Republican assaults on voter access — in the legislatures of many of the biggest states under their control— may also complicate congressional elections, making it harder for candidates in both parties to mobilize and turn out would-be constituents.
All this comes on the heels of an unprecedented, four-year assault on public servants by former President Donald Trump. His evisceration of the professional civil service in federal agencies, and his attacks on state election officials who were then threatened with violence, have been well documented. But Congress, too, was sidelined by Trump's chaotic governing style, and by the constant demand for lawmakers to respond to his erratic tweets and policy moves.
Add to this the logistical hurdles and health threats posed by the pandemic, combined with Congress' ongoing failure to modernize its own operations, and morale on Capitol Hill may have reached a nadir. Deficits in staff training and pay, weakened committees, and escalating partisanship and campaign costs all have taken their toll. Now, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, many lawmakers are literally fearing for their lives.
"They realize they can't get anything passed," says Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that works to make the legislative branch more functional. "They realize the committees have been neutered on some level by leadership. And they can't serve their constituents, because they don't have power to do that."
The problem is not that the supply of congressional candidates will dry up. The 2022 midterm promises to be funded with billions of dollars and extremely hard fought — especially as Republicans, who almost always do well the first election after a Democrat enters the White House, set out to build on 2020 gains that put them only a handful of seats from the House majority.
The problem is rather what caliber of public servant might seek out a life on Capitol Hill as it is today.
Congress has always had its share of colorful outliers, of course. The late Jim Traficant, an Ohio Democrat who was the last person expelled from the House after a 2002 bribery conviction, comes to mind. But the arrival in the House of Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right conspiracy theorist with little to no policy agenda and recently stripped of both her committee posts, bodes poorly for the institution. So does the departure of Portman, one of a long list of lawmakers known as worker bees willing to work across the aisle who has left or is heading for the exits.
Some lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, who even following his departure continue largely to defend Trump, amplify his election falsehoods and stoke ideological divisions and obstructionism.
But the solution to Capitol Hill's woes will not come from one party alone. One of its few bright spots lately has been the work of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which toiled in the previous two years to issue 97 bipartisan recommendations for how to make the institution work better — and was rewarded with two more years to propose even more improvements.
The panel's recommendations include shoring up congressional staff and support organizations, streamlining the congressional calendar to create blocks of time for committee work, modernizing the budget process — and encouraging more bipartisan oversight, retreats and training. Some of the proposals are already being implemented and more will be soon. The goal is a Congress that's more transparent, accountable, effective and even civil.
The committee's work is supported by some 70 groups, including the CMF and the Partnership for Public Service, in the vanguard of a growing coalition to reform and revitalize the battered Congress.
It's a mission that's gained urgency since Jan. 6, which spawned a new initiative by close to two dozen civil society groups dubbed CapitolStrong. That coalition will work to strengthen and invest in Congress and those who work there, particularly congressional staff.
Voters "like to demonize the institution," notes Fitch. "But in reality, we need a robust and healthy Congress. We need public service professionals."
Some voters might roll their eyes, but if the "first branch" breaks, democracy will pay the price.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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Civic educators watched last week's riotous assault on the Capitol with a mixture of alarm and hope. The mob's brazen disregard for the truth and the rule of law shook teachers around the nation, but also made a stunning case for the need to invest in civic learning, which could enjoy a breakthrough year in 2021.
A bipartisan bill to invest $1 billion in civic education, a teacher-friendly incoming president, popular support for civic learning, a surge in youth activism — and the fragile state of American democracy itself — have all combined to create "sort-of a Sputnik moment" for civics, says Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics.
Her organization, the nation's leading provider of civic learning resources, is leading a 144-member CivXNow Coalition of civic education groups that is working to mobilize allies from the Girl Scouts to the American Bar Association, along with legions of educators, students and teachers, to support the bipartisan Educating for Democracy Act.
Authored in the Senate by Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, a close ally of President-elect Joe Biden, the bill would dole out $1 billion to states for American history and civics programs and ramp up teacher training and student assessments. A House version was introduced by Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro and Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole.
The bill sets out to reverse chronic underinvestment in civic learning, which now receives just 5 cents in federal funding per student each year — compared with $50 per student annually for STEM education.
"I'm really heartened by the fact that the bill in the House and the bill in the Senate are bipartisan, despite the billion-dollar price tag," says Dubé. "That tells me that our political leaders recognize the depth of the problem. And it would be transformative for this field, for students and for educators."
The same hurdles that have plagued civic education for decades remain, of course.
Civic learning tends to get lost between the cracks of social studies, history and geography, can spook teachers wary of political controversies, and has triggered partisan disputes over whether students should learn facts and dates or how to transform communities. Only nine states and D.C. required a full year of civics or government studies to graduate as of 2018, though dozens of state legislatures will be mulling bills in their 2021 sessions to mandate more civic learning.
President Trump has undermined civic education both directly and indirectly, some argue, by modeling uncivil behavior as well as by roiling partisan disputes over what students should learn.
He has bullied and jeered at detractors, flouted the truth and the rule of law, assailed representative democracy with his unfounded voter fraud claims — and has now ended up as the first president impeached two times. Even as the nation grappled last year with racial reckoning, and students clamored for greater equity and diversity in classroom materials, Trump signed an executive order to promote "patriotic education" that he said would counter efforts to "paint America as a systemically racist country."
The Trump era may also have created an opening for civic education, however.
Americans' civic knowledge actually increased in 2019, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, a product of the president's constant clashes with Congress over budgets, immigration, impeachment and executive power. Trump's controversial presidency also helped spur record voter turnout, including among young Americans fired up over issues like race, global warming and gun safety.
Public support for civic learning cuts across party and ideology. Pollster Frank Luntz found in a survey last year that more than half of voters in both parties identified civic education as the best way to strengthen American identity.
Curriculum standards for civics, history and social studies, which vary by state but which in many cases have drawn fire as outdated, facts-heavy and lacking diverse perspectives, may also be in for a reset. A bipartisan group of national educators is poised to unveil a new roadmap for civic learning with the help of a $650,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Education Department.
Led by iCivics — in collaboration with Arizona State, Harvard and Tufts universities — the roadmap is expected to stress critical thinking over rote memorization, and to encourage students to embrace and actively engage in constitutional democracy. To be unveiled in March, the project is dubbed "Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners," and sets out to define what students should know with an emphasis on civic agency, equity, diversity and inclusion.
Both the roadmap and the $1 billion legislation may find allies in the top ranks of the new administration. Biden is poised to move the Education Department in a new direction and the new first lady, Jill Biden, is a community college professor. Betsy DeVos, Trump's only Education secretary until quitting last week after the mob stormed the Capitol, clashed with teachers and promoted controversial charter schools, but Biden has pledged to invest in teacher salaries and training.
The biggest hurdle facing the bill may be the coronavirus pandemic, which will continue to suck all the oxygen out of the education policy room until schools and politicians figure out a way to safely reopen classrooms and help students make up what they've lost during virtual learning.
Another challenge is that the Educating for Democracy Act will likely be considered as part of the reauthorization of the federal law governing federal aid to elementary and secondary schools, which invariably stirs up disputes over the shared role of states and the federal government over testing, standards and unfunded mandates.
Nevertheless, Dubé is cautiously optimistic civic education may finally be ripe for revival. If nothing else, the mandate for it may never have been more evident. "Clearly, we are a nation so polarized as to be dysfunctional," she said. "And that polarization cannot keep going on in a system that asks for compromise."
Carney is a contributing writer. She also heads The Civic Circle, a member of the CivXNow Coalition.
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