As we turn the final pages on a tumultuous 2021, all this week The Fulcrum will share a year-end series of guest commentaries from a distinguished group of columnists on the current state of electoral reform and what we may expect in the upcoming year.
Penniman is the founder and CEO of Issue One, a crosspartisan political reform organization, and author of “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It.”
Our democracy is under attack. The campaign to sow doubt in our elections and create distrust in our institutions is extremely motivated, and bad actors are gaining ground across the country.
This year alone, we saw 19 states enact new laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote, and several states placed election administration under greater partisan control. Barring federal action, we will see even more states in 2022 take steps to undermine the will of the people and set the stage for a constitutional crisis the likes of which we have never seen in our history.
That’s why Congress must act. Many common sense proposals — which benefit from a long history of bipartisanship and are supported by overwhelming majorities of Americans — have already been introduced. But Republicans in Congress have repeatedly filibustered these bills, going so far as to block debate on the very reforms needed to fix our broken political system.
We cannot allow this inaction to continue into next year. If we want to save our democracy, we must act now. As the leading crosspartisan political reform group in Washington, D.C., here’s what Issue One is focused on achieving in 2022.
Protect election officials and frontline poll workers
Our election officials and frontline poll workers have been facing death threats on a daily basis since the 2020 presidential election. These have been fueled by baseless claims of fraud despite former President Donald Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security, and attorney general, declaring the 2020 election safe and secure.
While the Department of Justice launched a task force earlier this year to investigate threats against election workers, there have been few arrests or criminal convictions, and many secretaries of state are frustrated that the task force hasn’t been deployed aggressively enough.
Our election officials are the embodiment of democracy in action — helping members of their communities register to vote, find their polling locations, cast their ballots and ensure that every vote is counted accurately. Many now live in fear, and states are bracing for mass retirements in the wake of these threats, which leaves positions open to extremists. As former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, a leader of the “Stop the Steal” movement, said last month, “We’re taking over all the elections.”
In addition to the DOJ stepping up its game, members of Congress should seek to pass bipartisan legislation protecting election officials from intimidation and threats of violence.
Prevent election administration from partisan takeover
We’ve seen a growing number of states move to strip local election officials of their power and place election oversight into the hands of partisan politicians. It’s difficult to interpret these laws as anything but election sabotage — an attempt to do what failed in 2020 by making it legal for politicians to toss out legitimate votes if they don’t like the outcome.
Principled Republicans, Democrats and independents must stand against this trend before it takes over not just purple states and red states but also blue states.
Make it easier for voters to securely cast their ballots
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, mail-in ballots, early voting and additional measures helped ensure that Americans were able to safely exercise their sacred freedom to vote.
What was the response in some states to this tremendous success? Making it harder to vote.
The massive disinformation campaign that Trump and many of his supporters continue to spread about the 2020 campaign has empowered lawmakers to roll back voting modalities they once championed — like mail-in voting.
And for what gain? In November’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, where steps have been taken in recent years to make voting more accessible, we saw how Republicans appear to have benefitted from some of the very proposals that have now stalled in Congress — including early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration.
Passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would at least empower the Department of Justice to take a closer look under the hoods of some of these laws and make sure they don’t discriminate against certain groups of voters. Congress has previously reauthorized the VRA on five separate occasions by overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats since its original passage in 1965, and they should once again affirm that bipartisanship.
End hyper-partisan redistricting
We’ve all seen the classic examples of gerrymandering — zigzagging districts engineered down to partisan perfection. It’s a tried and true weapon that both political parties have mastered, long ago coming to the realization that the best way to win elections and hold onto power is to prevent races from becoming competitive in the first place.
It’s had a profound effect on the makeup of Congress: of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, only 10 percent are considered up for grabs in next year’s midterm elections. Which means that 90 percent of House members need to worry mainly about getting through their primaries, either by raising so much money they prophylactically scare off competitors or by being so extreme that they cultivate the affinity of base voters.
When we talk about the dysfunctionality on Capitol Hill, we have to realize that it’s in large part the result of structural problems, and that many of those problems are fixable. Voters should pick their politicians, not the other way around. We must fix this undemocratic problem.
Update the Electoral Count Act
Our ability to elect a president and vice president fairly and peacefully every four years is
a hallmark of our democratic system. For over a century, the Electoral Count Act has governed this process and Congress’ role. But the 19th century law is outdated and rife with arcane language and ambiguities, opening the door to misinterpretations and exploitation.
It’s time for Congress to modernize this law, clarify the role of the vice president, rein in the objection process and prevent one party from attempting to overturn the will of the people.
We cannot leave this to chance. Both parties should work together to get this done and restore Americans’ trust in our democratic process.
Curb the spread of disinformation
Disinformation permeates every corner of our society. It fueled an attack on our nation’s Capitol and continues to run rampant across all forms of media, perpetuating lies about the election and other falsehoods.
Until we confront the harm disinformation is causing, it will be extremely difficult to accomplish any of the important reforms outlined above. We cannot hand the future of our country over to algorithms that distort the truth and allow lies to spread faster than real journalism.
Congress cannot let these platforms off the hook. Members from both parties have already expressed interest in bipartisan solutions following disturbing reports about the dangers facing young people. It is crucial that legislation also addresses the destructive power of disinformation.
Our broken political system — fueled by big money — has created an environment in which the vast majority of ordinary citizens today no longer have a seat at the table. 2022 must be the year we change course and fix this. The American people must have confidence in our democracy.