Democrats in the House of Representatives have handed President Joe Biden a golden opportunity to demonstrate that he is serious about healing the nation’s most bitter political divisions. Unfortunately, it’s not clear he realizes it.
The House recently passed HR 1, a compendium of changes relating to campaign finance, ethics and voting access. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said the Senate will take up the bill, which currently has no support among Republicans. Without eliminating the filibuster, it will be dead on arrival. That would be unfortunate, because on balance, much of the bill is good. And while some of it overreaches, the biggest problem with it is what it excludes: a robust effort to promote confidence in election integrity.
Polling shows that three-quarters of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was tainted or stolen by widespread fraud. There is no evidence to support it, and on the contrary, there is more evidence of a proper count in this election than perhaps any other in American history, given all the recounts and court reviews. Nevertheless, when nearly half the country thinks the electoral system can be gamed — and when election laws are loose enough to allow such conspiracies to take hold — that’s a problem that deserves to be taken seriously. Simply telling Republicans they are wrong, as Democrats seem inclined to do, won’t work.
To both save the bill and help spare the country from future cries of stolen elections, Biden should urge Senate leaders to break the bill into its component parts and consider each individually. And he should go further, by inviting a bipartisan group of lawmakers to develop proposals to improve the voting process by increasing both ballot access and ballot security.
Democrats contend that the voting access provisions in HR 1 — such as requiring states to automatically register eligible voters, hold early voting periods of no less than 15 days, and allow any voter to request a mail-in ballot — are necessary because Republican-led legislatures have been passing laws that are aimed at suppressing voting. Meanwhile, Republicans assert that state-level checks to ensure election integrity are necessary because voting illegally is too easy. Both parties are correct, yet that does not mean each party’s claim has equal merit.
In modern history, the number of instances where an election has been stolen by fraudulent votes — or even cases where a large number of fraudulent votes has been cast in a race — is practically zero. People who cast ballots illegally often do so without realizing they are ineligible to vote. That is a problem, but solving it requires stitching holes, not erecting barriers. The trouble is, HR 1 does more to widen holes — for instance, by requiring states to let voters designate someone else to collect and deliver their ballots, which has the potential to lead to altered or discarded votes — than to close them.
On the other hand, the number of instances where officials have used elections laws and procedures to make it harder for Americans to exercise their rights is legion and loaded with ugly racial history. The Voting Rights Act changed but did not end efforts at suppressing voter turnout in Black and other minority communities. In Republican-led states across the country, the tactics have become less blatant — from levying poll taxes, say, to requiring voters to pay for an identification card — but the goal has not, with the result being that Americans’ ability to cast ballots can be routinely blocked by bureaucracy. Democrats are correct that federal intervention is necessary to ensure all eligible voters can exercise their rights.
While access to the ballot is currently the bigger problem, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that laxity in voting laws could lead to problems down the road. If Democrats don’t take this issue seriously, they risk being blamed later if things go wrong — and might even find that they too could be the victims of ballot dishonesty. Just because the 2020 election wasn’t tainted by fraud doesn’t mean that a future election might not be. That could set off the kind of constitutional crisis Democrats spent the past four years worrying about. The time to prevent it is now.
It would be helpful if congressional leaders in each party acknowledged that the other side has a point. That they don’t is hardly surprising. But it also presents an opportunity for Biden to step into the breach.
By calling for a bipartisan examination of both ballot access and ballot integrity, the president could show that his campaign promise to bring the country together was more than lofty but empty rhetoric. Extending an olive branch to Republicans on this issue won’t sit well with many members of his party and its activist base, of course. But it would show the kind of courage that has been long lacking from the White House, that would serve the country well, and that history rewards.