The Democratic focus in the new year has been on trying to pass some version of voting rights reform. President Biden went down to Georgia and put the effort in stark terms: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Aside from the unhinged level of hyperbole here, is this choice of focus wise? Democrats seem to believe both that this focus will produce big electoral dividends and, more grandiosely, that it is the key to saving democracy in the United States.
Wrong. Oh so very wrong. Here are five reasons why.
1. As a practical matter, it will fail. The Democrats will not succeed in breaking the filibuster to pass either the For the People Act or the somewhat more modest Freedom to Vote Act. There are no indications that Manchin and Sinema will relent on this, not to mention the various moderate Senators hiding behind them. It seems unlikely that comparing some of their fellow Democrats to George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis will pry these votes loose.
Some may argue that trying and failing to pass a big voting rights bill will nevertheless pay electoral dividends by firing up partisans. More realistically, losing is losing; demoralization seems the more likely outcome. The noble failure theory of politics has a poor track record.
2. The second thing wrong with the current focus is it’s not what the people want. In truth, it’s passing strange that Democrats would choose to elevate this issue at a moment when their political fortunes have declined drastically, economic pessimism is rampant, inflation has been spiking and we are in the midst of another covid wave. What voters desperately want is a return to normality and, therefore, an administration that is focused laser-like on making that happen. A quixotic crusade for voting rights bills that will not pass does not exactly send that message. As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report points out:
Voting rights legislation — especially legislation that will not pass Congress — fails to address American families' core challenges. Sure, Congress and the President can theoretically do two things at once; protect voting rights AND help with COVID/economy. However, at this point, most voters don't think Biden is doing a particularly good job on the economy, which also happens to be the top issue on the minds of voters.
The fact of the matter is that voting rights barely register as a public concern. In a recent AP-NORC poll, respondents could mention up to five problems for the government to work on in the coming year; just 6 percent of the public placed voting rights anywhere in their top five. This issue may be a top priority for the progressive wing of the Democratic party but it’s just not for ordinary voters.
Even among the black population, a Morning Consult poll found that only 41 percent think the bigger problem with American democracy is that it’s too hard to vote, rather than voting regulations are not strict enough (among Hispanics the analogous figure was even lower at 34 percent). In a Monmouth poll, 84 percent of nonwhites said they supported requiring a photo ID for voting. This does not suggest that Democratic base groups are up in arms about voting rights in the same way as many of the advocacy groups that purport to represent them.
3. The third problem is that, even if one of these bills managed to pass, Democrats would be unlikely to reap significant electoral benefits. The assumption Democrats make is that, since Republican attempts to change voting procedures appear to be motivated by a desire to reduce Democratic leaning turnout, voting rights reform would buoy Democratic fortunes by preventing such attempts.
This logic is highly questionable. The key source of confusion here is the failure to distinguish between intent and impact. It is a reasonable contention that Republican intentions are not benign. They would like to depress the turnout of Democratic-leaning constituencies. That is the intent, but what is the impact likely to be?
Here we have data, especially on voter ID laws. The story, as told by relevant research, rather than the wishes of Republican operatives or the fears of Democratic activists, is simple: these laws just don't have much effect. They don't deter voter fraud, a minuscule problem to begin with, but they also don't depress turnout, including among nonwhite voters. This has been the great worry among Democrats, but it appears that, whatever the malign intent of GOP politicians--and it is certainly true that the drive for these laws has been highly partisan--depressed Democratic-leaning turnout has not been the result.
Nor is there much evidence that tweaking the convenience level of absentee/mail/early voting has much of an effect on turnout patterns. These voting procedure changes, as malignly motivated as they may be, are hardly “Jim Crow in the 21st century”, as Biden once averred (if only the original Jim Crow had been so ineffective!).
A related Democratic assumption is that a voting rights law would not only prevent Republican mischief with voting procedures, it would also unleash a tsunami of turnout by making voting generally easier. That higher turnout, it is assumed, would greatly benefit Democratic candidates.
But would it? You would think at this point, after the 2020 and 2021 elections, that the facile assumption that higher turnout benefits Democrats would be discarded. Of course, no myth is stronger in progressive Democratic circles than the magical, wonderworking powers of voter turnout. It’s become a sort of pixie dust that you sprinkle over your political problems that would, somehow, make them disappear. It’s way past time for Democrats to face the reality that higher turnout is not the yellow brick road to political success.
4. A fourth, and highly significant, problem is that if that the intent is to “save democracy” the voting rights bills under consideration do not take aim at the main problem: election subversion. That is, the real threat is not how easy or hard it is to vote but rather in certifying the results of the voting process. This is what Donald Trump was attempting to interfere with and what the January 6th riot at the Capitol was all about.
The voting rights reform bills under consideration would not solve this problem. And of course they won’t pass. A far more promising approach is reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to seal off a number of channels for election subversion. This approach has some bipartisan support and therefore some chance of actually happening. Sure, it’s not all that Democrats want but if their goal is truly to safeguard democracy this compromise is worth making.
5. Finally, the idea that voting rights reform is some sort of get out of jail free card for the Democrats as they roll into 2022 and 2024 is ridiculous. Their problems cannot be solved by even big changes to voting procedures. Their brand is in tatters, they are associated with a variety of unpopular causes and, as noted above, they seem neither focused on, nor effective in, addressing the most pressing concerns of voters. Their problem is less getting people out to vote than in getting people to vote for them.
This is particularly the case among working class voters. As I have noted previously, the divorce between Democrats and the working class just continues to grow. Despite a slight improvement, Democrats still lost white working class (noncollege) voters in 2020 by 26 points (Catalist two party vote). Since 2012, nonwhite working class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 margin points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election and particularly among Hispanics.
Nothing that has happened since the 2020 election suggests a reconciliation between Democrats and working class voters. If anything, the situation has gotten worse. That is what the Democrats should be most worried about—not changing voting procedures but changing minds among a disenchanted working class.