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There’s Less Than Two Years to Save American Democracy

Ari Berman

The ongoing drive by Republicans to pass voter suppression laws presents the biggest challenge to democratic government since the establishment of Jim Crow. If Democrats in Congress fail to act by the 2022 midterms, it could be too late to stop it.

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) flanked by senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and John Thune (R-SD) during a news conference in December 2020. (TOM BRENNER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

Though it has yet to fully register as the national story it deserves to be, America is currently in the throes of what may well be the most concerted effort at voter suppression in living memory. Since the beginning of the year, Republican state legislators have introduced a deluge of new laws intended to restrict voting, suppress traditionally non-Republican constituencies, and overturn the results of elections.

Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman has been covering issues related to voting rights, gerrymandering, and democratic disenfranchisement for years and is author of the 2015 book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Berman spoke to Jacobin’s Luke Savage about the concerted right-wing offensive currently underway at the state level, its deep parallels with similar efforts in the nineteenth century, and why failure to pass federal voting rights legislation will have dire consequences for American democracy.


LS

America is currently in the midst of the most pronounced effort at voter suppression it’s seen for quite some time. According to the Brennan Center, fourteen states enacted twenty-two new laws between January 1 and the middle of last month that restrict access to the vote. From what I can tell, this is just the tip of the iceberg — there being hundreds of voting laws tabled at the state level that have a restrictive character. How would you characterize what’s going on right now?

AB

I would characterize it as the greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction. If you look at the number of bills introduced, the number of bills passed, and the intensity of the effort behind it, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Many of these kinds of efforts were blocked under the Voting Rights Act — and since the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013, voter suppression has gotten worse. But this is by far the worst it’s been in the past decade. It’s not like this is the first time there have been efforts to suppress the vote, but we are seeing a greater number of efforts at suppression, more restrictive bills than before, and more of an intensity within the Republican party to pass them.

LS

What are some illustrative examples of the bills at play here? I know there’s one in Arizona (which hasn’t passed) that would essentially make it possible for the legislature to nullify the secretary of state’s certification of election results by a simple majority vote. Are there other particularly egregious examples of restrictive or draconian laws that come to mind?

AB

Well, there are laws that have actually passed, or that are close to passing, that I find very disturbing. In Georgia, they stripped the secretary of state as a voting member on the board of elections and basically gave the gerrymandered legislature much more control over the state election board — giving that board the power to take over up to four county boards of elections. That kind of stuff is very disturbing when you think about the fact that Donald Trump tried to overturn the election and that the exact mechanisms he tried to use involved going through county canvassing boards, going through state election boards, and pressuring the secretary of state. So they’re pursuing all the methods that Trump tried to use. There’s a Texas bill making it easier for courts to try to throw out votes, to try to overturn an election which, again, is exactly the kind of thing that Trump wanted to do.

So I’m concerned about all of the bills that will make it harder to vote: whether it’s making it harder to get a mail ballot, making it harder to return a mail ballot, making it harder for your ballot to be counted, the kind of intimidation work that poll watchers could do, adding new ID requirements that weren’t there before, or cutting back on early voting and the amount of time that people have to vote. I’m concerned about all of those policies, which are in some ways a continuation of what we’ve been seeing for the past decade. What I’m really, really concerned about, though, is that we’re actually making it easier to overturn an election. Because that’s the fail-safe if voter suppression doesn’t work: you say, “Okay, well, we didn’t achieve all of our ends to suppress the vote. So we’ll just throw out votes altogether or decertify the election,” then just start breaking one democratic norm after another. That’s what didn’t happen in 2020 that I’m very concerned could happen in 2024.

LS

How concerted would you say the effort is? To what extent are these state-level Republican parties acting in concert? And to what extent is this a national strategy that we’re seeing play out?

AB

It’s an incredibly concerted effort to try and make it harder to vote. First off, it starts with the leader of the Republican Party. He’s setting the tone in terms of the policies and outcome that he wants to see. But we also recently broke a story about this big dark money group, Heritage Action for America (the sister organization of the Heritage Foundation) bragging to donors that they’re writing what they call “model legislation” restricting voting rights. They said very clearly that they either draft the bills for them [state-level Republicans] or they have what they called their “sentinel” give them to legislators. So it has what they called a “grassroots from the bottom up” vibe, or they’re advising them on the kinds of policies they want to see.

They’re doing this in all of these key battleground states, and they’re putting real money behind it. They’re spending $24 million over two years on this campaign, while dark money groups overall are spending $42 million on their voter suppression campaigns. The Republican National Committee and state-level Republicans all have so-called “election integrity” committees, so this is way more coordinated than it was in the past. In short, the voter suppression efforts that we’re seeing right now are much more coordinated than they were a decade ago, with a lot more money and the top leadership of the Republican Party behind it.

Just this week, the Pennsylvania Republicans went to Arizona to observe their audit. This is why there was such a big battle over voting rights in Georgia, because the Georgia bill was basically going to be the template for what other states would do. And there have been a lot of similar provisions passed in different places. Any time you have so many bills passed in such a short period of time that are all quite similar, someone’s gotta be coordinating it. And, to me, the Heritage video that we uncovered shows that they are, if not the main group, one of the key groups coordinating it.

LS

This week, you published a long essay on the deep history of voter suppression in places like Georgia — which goes all the way back to the years immediately after the Union victory in the Civil War. I think many people are at least somewhat aware of the parallels between what Southern Democrats did in the late nineteenth century and what Republicans are doing today, but they may not realize how concrete and literal those parallels actually are. Can you talk about the very direct linkages between earlier efforts at disenfranchising black voters and what’s happening right now?

AB

There’s both a pattern that’s familiar and specific parallels. First the pattern: the familiar pattern is that you had the enfranchisement of new voters during Reconstruction. It was black voters who turned out in record numbers and were elected. Then you had efforts at violence, fraud, and intimidation to try to suppress black votes. That worked for a time, but when black voters were disenfranchised it was really through legal means like literacy tests, poll taxes, and things like that, which happened when states changed their constitutions a while after the end of Reconstruction. Reconstruction is often thought to have ended in 1877, when Rutherford B. Hayes pulled federal troops out of the South, but blacks still voted in a bunch of states in the South through that period. It wasn’t until Mississippi adopted its constitution to disenfranchise black voters in 1890 that Southern states tried to figure out a way to completely disenfranchise them through what were thought of as “legal” means.

That same kind of process is playing out today: you had the enfranchisement of new groups, manifested in higher turnout in 2020, and you had an attempt to try to overturn the election through extralegal means, including an insurrection. Then, in 2021, you have the so-called legal means to try to disenfranchise people through changes to election law. Those are the big-picture similarities.

The more specific similarities are, number one, the language: Jim Crow never actually said “we want to disenfranchise black voters.” It was technically race neutral, it’s just that everyone knew who the target was. The same thing is happening today. Georgia Republicans aren’t saying “we want to disenfranchise black voters,” but everyone knows that’s their target, because that’s the strongest constituency of the Democratic Party. Number two, even back then you had Southern white Democrats in Mississippi — because remember that Democrats were the segregationist party back then and Republicans were the party of civil rights, and that’s flipped — who were arguing that they were expanding voting rights. They either argued they were expanding voting rights or they argued they were protecting the sanctity or purity of the ballot. That same language is being used by Republicans today.

The last thing is that in the nineteenth century they also made it easier to overturn elections by taking away power from bipartisan election officials, and either gave it to partisan election officials or took power from voters to appoint their election officials. That kind of pattern is playing out in states like Georgia and Texas today. So there are big picture parallels, but also a lot of specific similarities in terms of the nature of the laws themselves.

LS

Legislation intended to curtail the current Republican offensive against voting rights is currently sitting before Congress in the form of H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Both face obstruction from the filibuster and from Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

I don’t want to ask you to speculate on what the exact outcome will be here, but let’s assume for a second that the filibuster remains in place: What’s the worst-case scenario if these two bills, and particularly H.R. 1, aren’t passed? What do subsequent elections from the 2022 midterms on look like if the current state-level offensive against voting rights succeeds in its main ambitions?

AB

If the federal legislation fails, it’s going to embolden Republicans to pass more sweeping voter suppression laws without fear of any kind of consequence. That could lead to reduced Democratic turnout and higher levels of voter suppression, which could enable Republicans to take back power in Congress and retain power at the state level in 2022 and 2024. That could allow them to not certify elections in 2022 and 2024 so that even if Democrats are able to overcome the suppression measures, Republicans will still control the outcome of the elections and essentially nullify the will of the voters. That’s the worst-case scenario here. Basically, we’ll be in a situation where an election is only viewed as legitimate if Republicans win, and there’s no way that you could describe that as a democracy — where only one side is acknowledged as being able to fairly win an election.

That just goes against all the tenets of what it means to be a democracy. That’s the worst-case outcome, and I see it as a very likely outcome — especially if Democrats fail to do anything. That’s another parallel that I see with Reconstruction: back then, Southern Democrats were passing all of these voter suppression laws and the only thing they were concerned about was what Congress might do, and when Congress didn’t pass federal legislation to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment and protect voting rights, Southern states just felt completely emboldened to do whatever they wanted.

To some extent, that’s the same way Republicans feel right now. I don’t think they fear the voters because they feel like they’re manipulating them — they are not worried about a voter backlash. They also don’t fear the courts, because those are now so dominated by Trump appointees. The only thing they fear is what Democrats can do in Congress, and if the Democrats don’t do anything, it’s very unlikely they’re going to retain both houses of Congress in 2022.