New Democratic Senate majority opens path to democracy reforms

Newly elected Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, seen here outside his Washington office, is the sponsor of legislation that would help reform the electoral system and fortify the country's democratic institutions. (Image via Warnock's Twitter page.)

Though the 2020 presidential election was called "the most secure in American history" by cybersecurity experts and certified by all 50 states, Republican officials continue to spread false claims of corruption, including the lie that widespread voter fraud impacted the results of the election. Fueled by the disinformation, far-right extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier this month in an attempt to overturn the results of the November presidential election.

For more than a decade the Republican Party has used allegations of election fraud to stoke distrust in the U.S. electoral system and to sell policies that suppress the vote. Since the 2010 Republican wave strengthened the party's control over legislatures across the South, the GOP has cited exaggerated and false claims of voter fraud to justify passing legislation such as voter ID laws that have been shown to curb voting and have a disparate suppressive impact on African Americans, Latinos, women, and young people.

"In the last 10 years, we have seen some politicians try to enact changes to the rules of the game so that some people can participate and some people can't," said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Voting Rights and Elections Program.

In the wake of an election that broke turnout records even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican state legislators are proposing new legislation to restrict voting, especially voting by mail. So far this year state lawmakers have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to this time last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In all, lawmakers in 28 states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 106 bills to restrict voting, including in the Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

But as Republican state lawmakers work to undermine the influence of an increasingly diverse electorate, congressional Democrats are calling for reforms to combat discriminatory voting policies and strengthen democracy in a way that makes the voting process freer, fairer, and more accessible. With President Joe Biden in the White House and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York recently said that his top legislative priorities include passing sweeping pro-democracy and anti-corruption reforms.

Earlier this month, Senate Democrats introduced companion legislation (S.B. 1) to the For the People Act (H.R. 1), which the Washington Post called "the most comprehensive political-reform proposal ever considered by our elected representatives." Sponsored by newly elected Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the bill represents a broad effort to boost democracy. It includes provisions to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, expand voting by mail, overhaul the campaign finance system by requiring full disclosure of donors and contributions, increase election security by modernizing state election systems, end gerrymandering, and make the democratic process more inclusive.

"The For the People Act is important legislation that brings us another step closer to ensuring that every eligible Georgia voter can participate in our democracy," said Warnock. "When we prioritize legislation that centers people and brings their concerns to the table, we have a better chance of getting it right. This comprehensive bill makes long-needed, pro-democracy reforms that would strengthen our democracy, and help ensure that our government remains by and for the people."

Congressional Democrats are also working to revitalize the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was eviscerated by the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision out of Alabama. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (S. 4263) would serve as an antidote to the Shelby ruling, restoring the full power of the VRA by establishing a new formula the U.S. Department of Justice would use in determining which states need federal preclearance of election changes, targeting those with 15 or more voting rights violations during the past 25 years, and those with 10 or more violations if at least one was committed by the state itself. Under that formula, 11 states would be subject to preclearance, most of them still in the South: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

A group of Senate Democrats led by Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware have also reintroduced legislation to give statehood status to Washington, D.C. Originally introduced in 2013, the bill would give District of Columbia residents control over local matters and full representation in Congress, where it currently has one non-voting delegate in Eleanor Holmes Norton. The city is home to an estimated 700,000 residents, a population that's bigger than Wyoming's and Vermont's and that's also majority Black. Republican lawmakers have objected to the effort, arguing that it's just a push to increase Democratic influence, but Carper dismisses that charge. "This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue; it's an American issue because the lack of fair representation for D.C. residents is clearly inconsistent with the values on which this country was founded," he said in a statement.

Other pro-democracy legislative proposals that have been discussed by congressional leaders include a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision loosening restrictions on money in politics. Earlier this month on the 11th anniversary of the ruling, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers reintroduced the Democracy for All Amendment, a bipartisan proposal to get big money out of politics. It would reaffirm the right of states and the federal government to pass legislation controlling election spending in a way that reduces the influence of the wealthiest Americans and large corporations.

"In Citizens United, five Supreme Court Justices overturned two centuries of jurisprudence to determine that private corporations enjoy the political free speech rights of the people,"  said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, one of the cosponsors. "But the democracy is stirring. As the exciting 116th Congress convenes, it's time we remind America of what popular government looks like."

In addition, Senate Democrats have renewed discussion about eliminating the filibuster, a legislative tactic that allows a senator or senators to speak for as long as they want on any topic unless 60 out of the 100 senators vote to bring debate to a close. The filibuster has historically been used to undermine progressive reforms. For example, Southern segregationists used it to try to block multiple civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s. Earlier this week Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky gave up on his demand that the new Democratic Senate majority promise to keep the filibuster, which Republicans could use to block President Biden's agenda in the evenly divided chamber where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tiebreaker.

But even some Democrats oppose killing the filibuster, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. When Politico asked Manchin if there were any scenario that would change his mind, he replied: "None whatsoever." Now public policy experts are discussing proposals that would leave the filibuster in place but require fewer than 60 votes to end it.