Make no mistake, both Democrats and Republicans have legacies stained with the manipulation of election rules. Yet the GOP has taken these efforts to new extremes, often mirroring an anti-system party more than that of a good-faith political participant.
The good news is that undermining democracy is not popular. In fact, outrage stemming from a lack of political representation is ubiquitous. As The Baffler editor Dave Denison wrote, “You could probably find more widespread belief in astrological portents than in the proposition that ‘here, the people rule.’” And this reality has spawned the growth of a resistance—not the anti-Trump #Resistance, but one far more significant: a Democracy Movement committed to realizing the (as yet unfulfilled) promise of an inclusive American democracy.
Florida’s vote to end the state’s harsh felon disenfranchisement statute was a crowning achievement of this Democracy Movement, no matter the GOP response. An astounding 64.5 percent—including a majority in almost every single Florida county—voted for the amendment. This means that many of those who supported far-right candidates Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis (now Florida’s U.S. Senator and governor, respectively) also voted for one of the largest expansions of the franchise since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is proof that the GOP grassroots are not in lock-step with their party elite’s anti-democratic bent.
And Florida is just the tip of the iceberg. Activists are winning pro-democracy battles across the country. Just on election night 2018, voters approved over 20 pro-democracy ballot initiatives. Now, 15 states and Washington, D.C. have automatic voter registration. Nineteen states and D.C. have same day registration. Fourteen states and D.C. will have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (with three more likely to join by the end of the year). Public financing of elections is spreading via municipalities. Five states last year attempted to limit gerrymandering (with varying degrees of success). And on a federal level, the House of representatives passed the For the People Act (H.R.1), an omnibus package that includes, among many other things, public financing of Congressional elections, nationwide automatic and same-day voter registration, and independent redistricting commissions.
In the face of anti-democracy push back, advocates are not giving up. In Florida, lawsuits will certainly be filed to challenge the poll tax. Moreover, a fund could be set up to pay the fines of those who cannot afford it. At minimum, democracy activists will register those who are still eligible under the new law. Significantly, since the ballot initiative changed the Florida constitution, overturning the poll tax only requires electing new politicians (albeit in gerrymandered districts).
Democracy advocates are also likely to continue their offensive via ballot initiatives across the country. In Massachusetts, for example, Voters Choice MA may put ranked-choice voting—a method that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference to ensure more democratic results—on the ballot in 2020. Activists hope a high turnout in a presidential election will be auspicious for these efforts.
Litigation has also proven surprisingly effective for reformers. Courts struck down Republican gerrymanders in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Florida counties were mandated to provide bilingual ballots, election assistance, and voting materials. And it was a lawsuit that exposed Texas’ sham voter fraud investigation.
Of course, in a federal judiciary increasingly stacked with rightwing, Federalist Society-approved justices, litigation will become more difficult. Efforts have already run up against an increasingly hostile Supreme Court, which has enabled the worst of the anti-democracy efforts through rulings in cases such as Citizens United and Shelby County. And just last week, the High Court halted court-ordered remedies in the Ohio and Michigan gerrymander cases.