Stopping the speeding train to autocracy

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As I noted in an earlier post, the first-priority Republican legislative effort nationwide right now is to restrict voting rights before the next national elections come. The Brennan Center has cataloged at least 253 bills in 43 states working their way through legislatures aimed at cutting back on the right of people, especially minorities and young people, to vote.

My contention is simple. Unless Democrats pull out all stops and pass comprehensive voting rights legislation in this term, we could well find ourselves by 2024 back with a democracy-destroying autocrat in the White House, this time one smarter and more effective than Donald Trump, and with anti-democracy Republicans in control over all three branches of government.

Because of changing demographics, the remaining Republicans who can do math know that changing demographics require that popular voting as we know it must go away if they are to retain power. Given the choice between autocratic rule and permanent minority status in the government, more and more Republicans are choosing autocratic rule. This is a frightening trend.

Few Republicans are going to openly admit that they want to end elections, but the intention of most of these hundreds of bills is clear. Voting must be made much harder for the people most likely to vote Democratic, thus giving the impression of free and fair elections while at the same time retaining governmental control in the hands of older, white, conservative autocrats.

The overblown “majority minority” debate

A lot of ink has been spilled on both ends of the political spectrum regarding the prediction that in 2042 the minority population of the United States will overtake the white population. As an old white guy myself, I cynically tell my white friends not to worry so much. The white hold on real power will be undiminished for all of our lifetimes. Here are four primary reasons:

  1. White people will remain the dominant “plurality” of the population (the largest ethnic/racial block) for many decades after 2042.
  2. The higher percentage of white voters, because of age and voting practices, will extend even more decades past that point.
  3. “Minority” designations include ethnic groups who have historically aligned themselves with conservative whites, such as Floridians of Cuban descent, and the definition of “white” has historically broadened in U.S. history.
  4. The one-dollar-equals-one-vote “money power” in the U.S. gets “whiter” by the day due to unabated rises in income inequality.

I do not know if that is a comforting set of “realities” to you or not. Nonetheless, the fear of losing political power will continue being stoked by Republicans. That fear is used every day in the conservative media bubble to undermine the ability of non-Republican American citizens to effectively exercise “suffrage.” Minorities, and the non-minorities who support them having a voice, are still, by the demographics, rowing a boat upstream against a strong current in trying to establish fair representation in the political discourse.

And so, the underlying issue is not the dilution of the white majority. The issue is that, while many white people embrace the inclusion of a broader array of voices into the American Experiment, millions adamantly do not. Two hundred years of championing democracy to the world goes out the window when you realize that your version of “democracy” really meant “We are always in charge.”

H.R. 1 – The “For the People Act”

Two major pieces of legislation are priority “must haves” for Democrats this session. House Resolution 4 is called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which I detailed in an earlier post. This bill is primarily built on the foundation of earlier civil rights legislation and the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution in order to counter the kneecapping of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the Roberts Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case.

The For the People Act, which is House Resolution 1, instead tackles a literal horde of individual affronts being enacted by conservative legislatures attacking access to the polls for targeted segments of the electorate. This bill was originally introduced in the House by Maryland Representative Paul Sarbanes in 2019 and passed, but was never able to get a hearing in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.

This bill basically updates earlier legislation that attempted to “bribe” states into improving access to the polls by providing funding to states for financing their voting systems. These laws include:

  • The Help America Vote Act of 2002
  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993
  • The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986

H.R. 1 “ups the qualifying rules” for that funding, as well as including some “sticks” for enforcement in federal elections. My read here is that the “bribes” are critical in order to better survive court challenges over federal authority to dictate election rules to states, and also to turn this into fiscal legislation that may give a path toward “budget reconciliation” and simple-majority approval in the Senate if necessary.

It is difficult to see how the full act can pass the Senate right now, however, without blowing up the filibuster. There are also likely to be court challenges as the judiciary tries to parse from the laundry list below what does and does not pass for legitimate federal say over the right to vote.

I noted in a previous post that the underlying judicial problem here is that there is not an over-arching “right to vote” in the United States. My contention is, however, that if the Congress does not pass this legislation, the autocracy advocates in many state legislatures will poison voting so much that the 2024 Presidential election is in grave danger. The disenfranchisement of millions of Americans will throw the election win back to a still-energized autocratic white minority.

The laundry list

It is difficult to describe the For the People Act as anything but a laundry list, because there is so much here. I have listed below my read of the key elements in that format. When you read them, however, you will likely find with every item a matching state initiative somewhere intended to kill this part of the free vote in that state for federal elections. See if you can play that “match game.”

  1. Reduce the number of seats on the Federal Election Commission from six to five in order to eliminate deadlock in federal election rule enforcement.
  2. Expand automatic voter registration by drivers’ license bureaus and other venues.
  3. Protection against registration errors – prevent targeted prosecution for minor errors in registration such as an incorrect address.
  4. Transparency over removals from rolls. Who is tossed and why?
  5. Protect portability of voting registration. People move their domicile, especially poorer citizens and ethnic minorities.
  6. Protect same-day registration.
  7. Limit interstate cross-checks in order to verify that the correct voter is being eliminated from the rolls when lists are matched.
  8. Report on voter registration statistics in each state to highlight demographic weaknesses.
  9. Prohibit interference with voter registration.
  10. Improve information and access for students soon turning 18.
  11. Improve poll access for disabled voters.
  12. Limit “voter caging” (challenging voter registrations through questionable means such as returned mailings).
  13. Prohibit deceptive practices, false statements, and voter intimidation in campaigns.
  14. Restore voting rights to felony offenders who have served their sentences.
  15. Guarantee the right to a counted provisional ballot.
  16. Guarantee fifteen days of early voting.
  17. Guarantee proximity of polling places to public transportation and increase polling places in rural areas.
  18. Guarantee the right to vote by mail and the “right to cure” simple mistakes in mail-in ballots.
  19. Protect voter-verified “permanent ballots,” where voters are signed up to receive the next election’s ballot by mail.
  20. Provide a 45-day voting turnaround period for uniformed and overseas citizens.
  21. Provide funding for more and better-trained poll workers.
  22. Expand who can sue for loss of voting rights.
  23. Get state election officials out of political campaigns. Remember then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp conducting his own election for governor?
  24. Improve access to voting by college students. Some ID requirements disqualify college students both in the location of the campus and their home addresses.
  25. Improve notification of polling place changes.
  26. Allow a sworn statement in lieu of accepted forms of voter identification.
  27. Provide for postage-free mail-in ballots.
  28. Improve tracking of mail-in ballots all the way from receipt through to counting.
  29. Limit the variation of poll opening hours.
  30. “Risk-limiting” and post-election audits. Use classic statistical auditing techniques both during and after elections to spot problems early.
  31. Establish independent congressional redistricting commissions.
  32. Create a judicial review process for congressional redistricting.
  33. Provide funds for improved election security.
  34. Fund improved protection against cyber-attacks, misinformation and hacking of all government institutions.
  35. Require improved campaign finance disclosures, especially involving foreign money,
  36. Better disclosure of the “beneficial owners” of political action entities.
  37. Improved disclosure on political advertisements – “honest ads.”
  38. Establish a shareholder “right to know” for corporate political contributions.
  39. Improve disclosure of spending by inaugural committees.

Whew! One federal “patching” bill competing against 43 state legislatures drilling holes in the boat at the same time. Who will win this race? The future of the nation depends on it.


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