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Death spiral for Democracy

On June 23, 2021, a Michigan State Senate committee published a 55-page report debunking claims of voter fraud and other irregularities during the 2020 election. The Republican-led committee, chaired by State Sen. Edward McBroom, investigated a variety of alleged election improprieties including hacked voting machines, illegal voting, and ballot dumping.

“This committee found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in Michigan’s prosecution of the 2020 election,” the report stated. “Our clear finding is that citizens should be confident the results represent the true results of the ballots cast by the people of Michigan.”

But as Michigan Republicans disprove theories of voter fraud, many GOP-controlled state legislatures are passing laws that restrict voting access. Since the beginning of 2021, fourteen states have passed 24 laws making it harder to vote or giving state legislatures more authority to interfere in election administration. In Michigan, Republicans continue to push to limit drop boxes and make absentee voting more difficult.

Meanwhile, federal Republicans oppose expanded voting access and election reform. On June 22, Senate Republicans filibustered the “For the People Act,” a bill that would have expanded voting rights, reduced partisan gerrymandering, and reformed campaign finance rules.

This bill would have made it easier to register to vote, allowing everyone to register online or at their polling place on election day as well as extending mail-in and early voting. To reduce partisan gerrymandering, the bill would have mandated that political maps be drawn by non-partisan commissions rather than state legislatures. Perhaps most importantly, the “For the People Act” would have bolstered campaign finance regulation and mandated greater transparency for campaign contributions and spending.

These provisions were so offensive to Senate Republicans that they unified in a full-party 50-vote filibuster to kill the bill. They didn’t even allow it to come to the floor for debate. Senate Republicans were so threatened by legislation expanding voting rights, reducing the influence of dark money, and making American elections fairer, that they refused to even talk about it.

The Senate is supposed to be “the world’s greatest deliberative body” – the place where thoughtful debate among differing positions result in reasonable and beneficial compromises. But thanks to the abusive use of the procedural loophole known as the filibuster, the Senate is no longer a place where things get done. Instead, it’s the place where a minority can prevent popular legislation from becoming law.

But why are Republicans so vehemently opposed to voting rights and election reform? Because presently, the GOP enjoys distinct electoral advantages that could be weakened by election reforms.

The Senate favors small states – regardless of population, each state gets two Senators. This means that a Senator from a big state represents many more voters than a Senator from a small state. For example, a California Senator represents over 65 times more people than Wyoming Senator. It also means that each individual vote cast in a small state has a much greater weight than a vote cast in a larger state.

Historically, this structure didn’t particularly advantage either party. But in recent years, American voters have undergone an urban-rural sorting, with rural voters supporting Republicans and urban voters favoring Democrats. As a result, the Senate’s geographic inequity has become a consistent Republican advantage.

Today, the fifty Republican Senators represent about 40 million fewer Americans than the fifty Democratic Senators. In fact, Republican Senators have not represented a majority of Americans since 1999. The same geographic inequity is present in the electoral college and has allowed Republican candidates to lose the popular vote but win the presidency twice in the last six elections.

In recent years, Republicans at both the state and federal levels have also benefited from gerrymandering far more than their Democratic colleagues. Finally, Republicans sometimes perform better when it is harder to vote. Legislation that makes it easier for everyone to vote – especially for historically disadvantaged minority groups that traditionally favor Democrats – is likely to reduce the Republican advantage.

Due to these electoral inequities, the GOP is able to hold majorities without the support of a plurality of voters. The party now seems intent on increasing its advantage by opposing any proposal to make elections fairer at the federal level, and pushing voter suppression bills through in state legislatures.

As the GOP drifts towards authoritarianism, pursuing a nakedly anti-democratic strategy of suppressing voters in order to cement minority rule, Senate Democrats seem unwilling to amend the filibuster. Meaning that although they control the Presidency, House, and Senate, Democrats are incapable of passing the legislation that Americans needs. The United States is caught in a state of political paralysis, unable to move the gears of government to tackle climate change, socioeconomic inequality, or any of our other challenges.

The United States displays many characteristics of a nation in decline including failing leadership and decaying institutions. I hope that I am wrong, but I am afraid that we are witnessing the death spiral of American Democracy. Before the mid-term election, Democrats should face this challenge, amend the filibuster, and get on with real legislation to serve the needs of the American people.

Nicholas Wilson is a Keweenaw Resident and a freelance journalist.

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