The Corner


The Dangerous State of Our Democracy Debates

Then-president Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Often when we talk about election reform, we have in mind questions of what might be called election-system design — ideas like ranked-choice voting, multi-member legislative districts, or the like that involve taking the electorate for granted and thinking about what kinds of elected officials to foster and incentivize. Given the condition of our political culture, I think that it’s worth experimenting with some ideas like these in various places, and that conservatives are mistaken to think they would only benefit progressives. Ranked-choice voting, for instance, by encouraging the sort of factionalization our two parties have been lacking lately, could well help the right a good bit more than the left in much of the country, and in any case it could yield political institutions better geared to bargaining and accommodation. This is a policy arena worth the serious attention of conservatives in the coming years.

But these days, we are witnessing an increasingly intense debate about election reform that is focused instead on election administration — proposals about the modes, times, and circumstances of voting and the rules for voter eligibility that are basically about what kind of electorate to permit. Election administration is an inherently controversial subject. But it has become controversial now in a particularly unhealthy way, which has been driving each party to become more and more like the caricature the other paints of it, and undermining the public’s confidence in our elections.

A core challenge for election administration is balancing access and integrity: Allowing or encouraging eligible voters to exercise their right to vote while protecting the election system from fraud and abuse. This can be a difficult balance to maintain, but it is not as difficult as our political debates about it now suggest. The fact is that American election administration is in a good place at this point. It is in most respects easier than ever for eligible voters to vote today, and we have very little fraud in our elections.

The 2020 election saw an aggressive loosening of voter-access rules, largely because the election took place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states made it much easier to vote by mail and to vote early. But these kinds of provisions had been increasing well before 2020, and access to voting has been growing on the whole throughout this century.

Those changes are likely at least partially responsible for the growth in voter turnout, although it’s likely also true that turnout is growing in part because our politics has become more heated and divisive. Higher participation rates may therefore be a mixed blessing, but on the whole they are a blessing nonetheless, and we should want more citizens to feel empowered to take part in American self-government. Turnout soared in the 2020 election, to the highest level in more than a century, increasing in every single state over 2016 and growing by about six or seven percentage points nationwide. But it has actually been rising gradually for decades, at least since the mid-1990s. On average, turnout in presidential election years between 1980 and 2000 was 54.4 percent of eligible voters, and between 2000 and 2020 it was 60.2 percent — an increase evident among black and white voters alike. Indeed, black and white voting rates have been increasingly aligned in this century.

Voter fraud of various sorts is harder to measure, of course. But every attempt to catalog such fraud (the Heritage Foundation maintains what seems to be the most comprehensive database) suggests its scale in both in-person and mail-in voting is vanishingly small.

And yet, our debates about election-administration reforms this year have not begun from the premise that our system is in strong shape but could be made stronger. They have begun from two mirror-image forms of hysterical panic that combine into a reckless and unfounded delegitimization of American democracy.

On the one hand, Donald Trump’s cynical campaign of lies about his election loss last year has left Republicans incapable of processing the election as anything but a disaster and a fraud. In reality, Republicans should see that election as at least a mixed bag. Losing the presidency is never pleasant, to be sure. But they gained seats in the House and defended a number of endangered Senate seats despite the drag of an unpopular incumbent president. Even the presidential race itself was pretty close given the circumstances (and given a presidential candidate under-performing other Republicans in many places). At the state level, Republicans improved their already strong position, winning majorities in two new state legislative chambers, losing none to the Democrats, and gaining a governorship.

Even more important, the 2020 election offers strong evidence against the entrenched Republican view that high-turnout elections are only good for Democrats. This assumption has somehow survived at least two decades of contrary evidence now, but 2020 may offer the strongest case yet: Higher turnout brought out 11 million more Republican voters in 2020 than in 2016. The Democrats saw an even bigger increase of course, of more than 14 million voters, but the election was close enough that it should suggest to both parties that making it easier for more people to vote and bringing out more people to do so can enable them to win — a thought that would be unfamiliar to too many Republican politicians.

Instead, Republicans have responded to 2020 by maligning our election systems and in some cases also looking for ways to retrench ballot access at the state level. Much of that retrenchment involves undoing what were plainly understood to be temporary pandemic measures, and so returning to 2019 election rules in some states. It does not make sense to treat such moves as forms of voter suppression, though I do think they are generally a mistake. The 2020 election was better for these broader access measures, and states should at least consider which can reasonably be kept—with an eye to increasing voter participation, which Republicans no less than Democrats should come to understand as both objectively good and in their interest.

Some of these state legislative proposals are more than pulling back pandemic measures, though, and reach to ballot access rules that predate the past year, at times in ways that seem targeted at particular Democratic constituencies or even particular racial minorities. The bar for accusations of targeted suppression or racism should be high, but some ideas that have been out there in recent months do seem to reach it. A proposal in a committee of the Georgia legislature to prohibit early voting on Sundays, for instance, would be hard to explain as anything other than an effort to restrict the black vote. And Republicans should be ashamed to be associated with any effort aimed at such a purpose. It obviously makes sense to be uniquely sensitive about the voting rights of black Americans. Only a willful ignorance of the American experience could justify pretending otherwise. Even if there was some significant electoral advantage to be had by such tactics, which is far from clear in any case, the moral and civic costs would be nowhere near worthwhile.

That proposal about Sunday voting was, however, rejected in committee, and is not part of any active legislative effort. And in fact, it’s hard to say if anything much will come of any of these efforts in the states. They, and particularly those that might raise genuine concerns, are relatively few and modest. A lot of the Democratic criticism of these moves has referred to a figure from the Brennan Center that counts 253 bills to restrict voting access moving in 43 states. The Brennan Center does serious and important work in this area, and it’s worth seeing that statistic in the context of the report to which it was attached. Here’s what it said:

As of February 19, 2021, state lawmakers have carried over, prefiled, or introduced 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states, and 704 bills with provisions that expand voting access in a different set of 43 states. Note that, in some cases, a single bill can have provisions with both restrictive and expansive effects.

Of course, most states are in both categories at once, and most of these bills in both categories aren’t going anywhere anyway. Indeed, no one who has observed a state legislature would be surprised by these numbers on their own. About 110,000 bills are introduced in our state legislatures every year, yielding a glut that many legislatures and the National Conference of State Legislatures have been working to reduce for decades. Even apart from the fact that there have been more than twice as many bills introduced to expand voting access as to restrict it, and even given that most restrictive bills are just undoing pandemic-related access expansions, it would not be accurate to conclude that our state legislatures are engaged in a flurry of election-related legislation at this point.

The far more serious problem is the rhetorical assault on the legitimacy of our election system on the right — the insistence by elected officials that the last election (i.e. the one in which most of them were elected) was a sham, and that our election system is subject to an intense, cynical campaign of manipulation and fraud by the left that has rendered it worse than worthless. It’s crucial to see that a lot of what Republicans are doing on this front is driven by that sense that Democrats are trying to play games with election rules, and that the resulting outrage harms our democracy.

And of course, it doesn’t help things when the Democrats seem to confirm that caricature, which has been happening as the result of an equal and opposite hysteria about elections on the left. Democrats, too, have been insisting to their voters that our democracy is under heavy attack and that this threatens to turn our elections into shams.

That argument did not begin after this last election of course. The latest round of Democratic skepticism about our election system can be traced at the very least to the 2016 race, after which polls found that large majorities of Democrats thought the Russians had manipulated vote tallies to get Donald Trump elected.

In the wake of the 2018 midterms, the case began to focus on Republican voter suppression, especially after Stacey Abrams insisted that the Georgia gubernatorial election had been stolen from her. Abrams ultimately made a variety of allegations, touching issues from voting machines to purged rolls to manipulated voting hours in majority-minority precincts, but she offered no substantive evidence for any claim of suppression, let alone for the claim that she was the election’s rightful winner. The analogy to Trump’s unsubstantiated claims has not escaped the notice of even some friendly observers. But such allegations are widely credited on the left, at least in vague and general terms, and have helped fuel an increasingly intense hysteria about the fate of our democracy, which has driven efforts to nationalize key elements of election administration to impose more accessible modes of voting.

This effort has been most concretely embodied in H.R. 1, which is now moving through Congress. The bill is being presented as a response to those suppressive Republican legislative efforts in the states. But even putting aside the actual scope and context of those proposals, the simple fact that the same bill was advanced in the House in the last Congress, before the 2020 election, can help us see that this isn’t really about the Republican reaction to that election.

Yet it’s also not quite fair to say, as many Republicans clearly believe, that it is instead about a naked Democratic desire to manipulate election rules to their advantage. That’s surely part of what some Democrats are thinking (as the desire to manipulate the rules to win is part of what some Republican state legislators have in mind in trying to roll back ballot access). And sometimes people on the left seem to express this cynicism rather bluntly. When The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein made his case for the Democrats’ passing H.R. 1 last week, for instance, an editor at the magazine gave his article the subhead: “If the party doesn’t pass new protections, it could lose the House, Senate, and White House within the next four years.”

But hard as it may be to believe, few people in politics are openly motivated by raw cynicism. In our election debates, each party is instead more often motivated by the deeply held belief that the other party is motivated by such cynicism. Thus my impression is that the Democrats advancing H.R. 1 are moved by a genuine fear that Republicans have turned against democracy. That fear is surely informed by the experience of the January 6 attack on the Capitol (which was nothing if not an attack against democracy), and by a mistaken but widespread sense that Republican state legislators all over the country are scheming to take voting rights away from Democrats.

And the Democrats genuinely fail to see how dangerous H.R. 1 itself is to public confidence in our elections. But can you imagine a more effective way to persuade Republicans to lose trust in our democracy than to have the narrowest possible Democratic majority in Washington take over key election-administration rulemaking in every state and impose new and often looser rules involving voter registration, ID requirements, eligibility, ballot harvesting, early voting, drop-boxes, mail-in voting, locations and hours of polling stations, voting by felons, campaign donations, and more? And can you imagine a more effective way to persuade Democrats to lose trust in our democracy than to insist that if that bill does not pass then our elections will be rendered meaningless shams?

NR’s editors are right to call H.R. 1 “a partisan assault on American democracy,” and their particular critiques of the bill also strike me as quite right. Yet it is clear that Democrats have worked themselves into advancing this measure because of genuine (if not always well founded) fears about a Republican assault on American democracy. And it is also clear that in response to things like H.R. 1, some Republicans in the states are working themselves into advancing bills to tighten election security by restricting access to the ballot because of genuine (if not always well founded) fears about a Democratic assault on American democracy.

The core problem with H.R. 1 is therefore not that its provisions would enable rampant fraud in our elections. I doubt they would even affect outcomes all that much, just as it is far from clear that any of the Republican measures in the states would either. In fact, some early research about 2020 even offers reasons to be skeptical of the idea that making voting much easier last year was what drove turnout to the heights it reached. The bill is also not very likely to pass, just like most of those Republican proposals in the states. Rather, the main problem with both the Democrats’ drive for H.R. 1 and those Republican measures is that each suggests to its own partisans that our election-administration system is now illegitimate, and each suggests to the other party’s voters that their right to participate as equal citizens in a legitimate democracy is under attack.

This bipartisan assault on the legitimacy of our elections is the biggest problem our democracy now faces. It is a bigger problem than both the access concerns and the security concerns that are driving the two parties to take up the issue.

My observations as an outsider suggest to me that conversations among intelligent, well-meaning Democrats about these questions now take it for granted that Republicans are at war with our democracy. And I can tell you as an insider that conversations among intelligent, well-meaning Republicans now frequently assume the same about the Democrats. Each party’s response to these concerns further inflames the other’s concerns.

There is no easy way out of this cycle. But grasping that it’s happening would help. Rather than begin from the premise that our election system is illegitimate, our debates about election administration should begin from the facts that it is now easier to vote than it has pretty much ever been in America, that we have remarkably little fraud in our elections, and that these are both achievements to build upon. It is possible to both help more eligible voters vote and keep more ineligible voters from voting at the same time. (Dan McLaughlin’s excellent cover piece in the current NR offers a very constructive way to think about how to do that, though I am probably more friendly to both mail-in voting and early voting than Dan is.) Both parties should agree that both goals are worthwhile, and there are some models of bipartisan action (as in Kentucky, for example) that are worth following.

But above all, we need to recognize and openly acknowledge that our election system works well and produces legitimate, reliable results — even when our party loses.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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