Neglecting democracy in America
BERKELEY – The right to vote is under assault across the United States. That right is the linchpin of democracy, and democracy is essential for maintaining the trust and rule of law upon which the US economy depends.
Consider what is at stake. The US model of market capitalism has succeeded lately in creating more and more equitable opportunities and outcomes for Americans. The recovery from the COVID-19 recession has been strong, with robust GDP growth, job creation, and wage increases, especially for the bottom 50%. Household and business balance sheets are healthy, and a record number of new businesses were created in 2021. Yet a dangerous new vision of US “democracy” seeks to restrict Americans’ opportunity to vote and choose their representatives.
While the US Constitution delegates authority to oversee federal elections to the states, Congress maintains legal authority over voting rights, and US courts have the authority to ensure that every citizen’s constitutional right is respected, regardless of where they live. The Supreme Court, however, has increasingly taken a hands-off approach to the issue, and Congress, owing to unanimous Republican opposition, has failed to ensure that voting rights are adequately protected.
Republicans in many states have taken this inaction as an invitation to pass new voter-suppression laws. In 2021, we saw the most brazen, concerted effort to roll back voting rights since the infamous Jim Crow era of state-enforced racial segregation. And as in the Jim Crow era, race is again a driving motivation.
With the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, Adam Liptak of the New York Times explains, the Supreme Court “effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.” Then, in 2021, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Court weakened voting-right protections further, leading Justice Elena Kagan to lament that the majority “has treated no statute worse” than the Voting Rights Act.
Following the January 6, 2021, insurrection by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump at the US Capitol and Trump’s numerous failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election with lies about election fraud, the US House of Representatives passed two bills. The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would “protect the right to vote and expand it to make our elections more accessible, safe, and fair with national standards for all voters.”
The bills would create important safeguards for voting rights, such as automatic voter registration, expanded absentee and early voting, a prohibition on purges of voter rolls, and restoration of the franchise to felons who have completed their sentences. The bills also include provisions to combat partisan gerrymandering by establishing independent redistricting commissions.
After a year of efforts to build support for these bills, both have been blocked in the Senate, owing to the refusal by Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to revise the filibuster – a Senate procedural rule that is not in the constitution, and that has been revised more than 160 times in the past.
Meanwhile, across 49 states in 2021, Republican legislators introduced more than 400 bills with provisions to restrict voting, 33 of which had been enacted by year end. Many aim to undo the measures that had successfully expanded voter access in 2020, such as early voting and mail-in ballots. Other proposals would purge voting rolls, introduce more onerous voter-identification requirements, and hand control of state election machinery to Republican operatives.
At least 152 of the bills introduced in 2021 have been carried over to this year, with key southern and swing states considering additional anti-democratic measures. The push to restrict voting has been fiercest in states with the fastest-growing minority populations, and in states that flipped to the Democrats in 2020, or that may soon do so.
In sharp contrast, many Democratic-controlled states are moving forward to strengthen voting rights. In 2021, 27 states enacted legislation to expand and improve mail voting, 18 states enacted measures to boost voter registration, and 15 states created, expanded, or improved in-person early-voting opportunities.
According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans (57%) believe that voting is “a fundamental right for every adult US citizen and should not be restricted in any way,” whereas 42% of respondents think that “voting is a privilege that comes with responsibilities and can be limited if adult US citizens don’t meet some requirements.” As with most issues, there are significant partisan differences: 78% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say that voting is a fundamental right, compared to just 32% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
In another poll, 56% of Americans say that expanding voter access is more important than preventing supposed voter fraud. Again, there are significant partisan differences: almost 90% of Democrats say voter access is more important, while 75% of Republicans believe it is more important to limit voter fraud. Although numerous independent studies have shown that voter fraud is a vanishingly small problem in the US, Republican leaders in many states, stoked by Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was “stolen,” have used it as a bogeyman to justify restrictions on voting rights.
But polls also reveal that a majority of Americans do not rank voting rights as a top priority. About two-thirds of respondents think the US is headed in the wrong direction, that the overall state of the US economy is poor, and that economic issues should be the top policy priority. Only 22% believe that policing state-level voter restrictions should be a priority, and only 26% believe that expanding voting access in federal elections should be Congress’s top focus. Finally, just 6% identify “voting laws, voter fraud, or voting issues” as the top problem on which the government should be working in 2022.
American democracy is facing its greatest crisis since the Civil War, and US citizens, their focus trained on the economy, are failing to connect the dots. The right to vote is the foundation of America’s democracy, and the health of America’s economy depends on the health of its democracy.
Laura Tyson, Co-Chair of the California Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, is Professor of the Graduate School at the Haas School of Business and Chair of the Blum Center Board of Trustees at the University of California, Berkeley. Lenny Mendonca, Senior Partner Emeritus at McKinsey & Company, is a former chief economic and business adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom of California and chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.