This is the Democrat plan to restore democracy? A brand new week of paid vacation for every federal employee who’d like to hover around while you cast your ballot? A Washington-based, tax-subsidized clearinghouse for political campaign funding? A power grab. It’s smelling more and more like exactly what it is.
Thus spoke Mitch McConnell last week on the floor of the U.S. Senate, denouncing H.R.1, the “For the People Act of 2019,” the new legislation being moved forward by the House Democratic majority, whose purpose, in the words of the legislation, is “To expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and for other purposes.”
See McConnell hold forth for yourself:
The statement has all the hallmarks of McConnell’s uniquely unctious style of communication: the misrepresentation of the bill; the scare-mongering about ”Washington” and about “federal employees” (did these guys learn anything from the recent government shutdown they caused?); and the contempt for the bill’s purpose, which is to strengthen democracy by safeguarding the voting rights of citizens.
An alternative description of the Act is furnished by the Brennan Center for Justice:
In a major step toward fixing our broken system of elections, House Democratic lawmakers introduced a comprehensive democracy reform bill on the first day of the 116th Congress. The bill . . . would create a more responsive and representative government by making it easier for voters to cast a ballot and harder for lawmakers to gerrymander, by transforming how campaigns are funded to amplify the voices of ordinary Americans, and by bolstering election security and government ethics.
Here are some of the bill’s main provisions, designed to enact into federal law some basic principles of electoral integrity that are currently respected by the states in a haphazard way when they are respected at all:
- Same-day and online voter registration.
- Early voting periods for federal elections.
- Making Election Day a public holiday, so that millions of workers would have the time to vote.
- The setting of Congressional boundaries by independent commissions rather than by state legislative majorities.
- Protections for the voting rights of individuals who may lack “proper identification” as this is variously defined by the many states that currently have arcane or prohibitive voter I.D. laws.
The Act also contains a number of provisions designed to prevent voter intimidation, stating that “It shall be unlawful for any person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, to corruptly hinder, interfere with, or prevent another person from registering to vote or to corruptly hinder, interfere with, or prevent another person from aiding another person in registering to vote.”
McConnell’s tone-deaf and arrogant remarks were promptly met with appropriately strong rebukes from some Democrats. Former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer tweeted: “Is it a Democratic Party “power grab,” as Mitch says, if we make voting more convenient for everyone? What is Mitch afraid of? Answer: the people.” U.S. Representative Ted Deutsch was even more pointed: “An Election Day holiday WOULD be a power grab. It would be the American people grabbing power back from the wealthy special interests that dominate Washington because @senatemajldr & others prefer that it be hard to vote. #ForThePeople.”
Boxer and Deutsch are surely right. And behind the polemics are some deeper lessons about power, voting, and democracy.
McConnell is drawn to the notion that power is something to be grabbed. This makes perfect sense when one considers the tactics he has employed as Senate Majority Leader. What McConnell seems not to understand is that in a democratic society political authority ought to embody, in some sense, the power of the people; that popular assertions of power are not pathologies of politics but the essence of democracy; and that the democratic legitimacy of the American government — which alone makes McConnell someone even remotely worthy of attention—rests upon the voting rights of the citizenry.
As books like Alexander Keyssar’s The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States(2009) and Michael Waldman’s The
R Fight to Vote (2016) make clear, voting rights have always been achieved through political struggle, through the mobilization of popular power against entrenched interests and codified exclusions, and through demands for recognition. Unlike the legislative maneuvers favored by McConnell, this kind of empowerment is not the slightest bit “grabby.” For it is grounded in a strong and publicly articulated sense of justice, and it appeals to an idea supposedly at the heart of American identity: the idea that the authority of government derives from “the consent of the governed.” At the same time, while such empowerment is not “grabby,” it is most definitely assertive. Without such assertion, it is hard to see how there could be democracy at all. For, as Frederick Douglass noted this in his now-famous 1857 “West Indian Emancipation” speech:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
As Douglass understood, “power” will concede justice only when it is confronted with a morally compelling and politically irresistible counter-power. McConnell, and the Republican Party that he leads, have nothing but contempt for such episodes of popular counter-power, just as they have nothing but contempt for justice. And this is precisely what makes legislation like the “For the People Act of 2019” so important.
For, far from being a “grab for power,” the bill is a long-necessary response to a real power grab by the Republicans, who have long sought to use every means at their disposal, at the state level and in Washington, to limit voter participation and voting rights enforcement. This has been well-documented, by political science research (See especially Jesse H. Rhodes’s 2017 Ballot Blocked: The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, but see also here, here and here) and by the ongoing efforts of groups like the Brennan Center. Fortuitously, within days of McConnell’s disparaging speech, the New Republic came out with one important piece on this very topic: Sophie Kasakove’s “ The Shadowy Group Keeping a Right-Wing Stranglehold on the States.” The group in question is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the now-infamous Koch-funded organization that has played a crucial role in promoting state legislation restricting voting rights. Kasakove is worth quoting at length:
“ALEC teaches state lawmakers to think about policy not as a way of solving problems but as a way of building political power,” explained Alex Hertel-Fernandez, who recently published State Capture, a book about ALEC and other conservative policy groups. According to Hertel-Fernandez, the difficulty of undoing ALEC’s handiwork through elections is not a side effect of the group’s policy strategy, but an essential aim. The broad reach of ALEC, along with the State Policy Network and Americans for Prosperity, has made this anti-democratic approach to policymaking a crucial part, he argues, of what it “mean[s] to be a conservative, pro-business state legislator.”
By focusing on policy areas that target the very landscape of who gets to have power, these groups have essentially guaranteed that the tide, if it turns against them, will do so slowly and painstakingly. Thanks to ALEC-backed gerrymandering legislation in Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, for example, Republicans retained state legislative control in November, despite the fact that Democrats received the majority of votes. Research shows that right-to-work laws — which destroy unions’ ability to donate and organize for pro-labor candidates — cost Democratic candidates between two and five percent of the vote in an average election and lowers voter turnout by approximately two percent.
“For Democrats to take advantage of their gains, they need to have that organizational landscape to buttress their lawmakers,” said Hertel-Fernandez. Winning seats isn’t enough, he argues, if Democrats can’t institute policies that grow Democratic legislative power in the long term. “I don’t see that being built in a significant way,” he added.
Now, this is the kind of power that demands our attention and our concern: corporate-funded power being mobilized, and exercised, to roll back voting rights, labor rights, social rights, and other hard-won achievements of the post-New Deal order.
I believe that Alex Hertel-Fernandez is right to question whether a counter to this power is now being effectively developed by the Democratic party and by the liberal groups that constitute its base. At the same time, the November 2018 “blue wave” was perhaps a start. And the “For the People Act of 2019” — whose passage in the House, and whose public traction, are only possible because of this “wave” — represents an attempt to put some legislative teeth behind such efforts.
There can be no doubt that many Democratic legislators are as tactical, and “grabby,” as McConnell and his Republican minions. But there is a huge behavioral difference between the two. For while the Democratic Party is seeking to expand the electorate and open up opportunities for participation, the Republican Party is seeking to constrict, to purge, and to expel—from voter rolls, and indeed, in the case of immigrants, from the country itself.
One reason the Democratic Party is doing this is surely because of the demands being placed on it by its electoral base, its constituent groups, and its newly-ascendant insurgent leaders, symbolized by “AOC.” But McConnell is not wrong to note another reason: because the party leadership sees this expanded electorate as a means of its own future electoral success. Doing this is a way for Democratic politicians, whatever their ideological disposition, to have stronger chances of defeating Republicans in future elections, and to have stronger chances of being able to enjoy the benefits — salaries, patronage, etc. — that come with public office.
McConnell cannot conceive of this kind of politics as anything but grabby. That is because he and his party practice such politics in the grubbiest and most contemptuous way possible — by demonization and race-baiting and excluding. But, as Dawn Langan Teele shows in her terrific new book, Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Vote , the expansion and enforcement of voting rights has always relied on a synergy between the needs and demands of aggrieved and excluded constituencies, and the instrumental calculations of partisan political entrepreneurs who see that these needs and demands are worth taking seriously.
The Democratic Party seems to be waking up from a long period of political complacency. Even the most mainstream party leaders understand that their future lies with voter mobilization and the strengthening of democracy. This does not make the Democratic Party an Agent of Emancipation or a crusader for justice. Hardly. That will require more than victory in a few election cycles, or even the passage of legislation like H.R. 1 — which will only be possible if the Democrats are able to capture the Presidency and both Houses of Congress sometime soon. It will require a long-term commitment to building the infrastructure and “organizational landscape” of which Hertel-Fernandez speaks. And will also require a synergy between such organizational efforts, and the activity of social movements pressing the party on questions of social, economic, and environmental justice and sustainability.
But the “For the People Act of 2019” is a good step in the right direction.
Meanwhile the Republican Party continues to look backwards, refusing even to pay lip service to democracy.
This is why any Democratic candidate for President will be far superior to any Republican, and why it is so important to retake the White House and the Senate in 2020. But it is also why winning in 2020 is not enough, and why it is so important for the current contest for the nomination to generate a strong vision for the revitalization of democracy in America, and a strong candidate who is able to both stand out in front of this vision, and be firmly behind it.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.