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Democrats’ voting rights push in Congress is over. The fight for democracy isn’t.

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The war for American democracy can still be won despite the Senate’s failures. Here’s where to start.
If you listen to some leading liberal voices, the Senate defeat of the Freedom To Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts could sound the death knell of American democracy. In a Wednesday speech held before the Senate votes, President Joe Biden warned of future stolen elections: “the prospect of [an election] being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these reforms passed.” Mother Jones’s Ari Berman, a leading journalist on the democracy beat, argued that the Senate is “killing the Democrats’ last, best chance to protect American democracy.” Biden and Berman are right that American democracy is heading toward some sort of crisis, and there’s good reason to think these bills would have improved the long-term outlook. But the reality is that the bills Democrats sought to pass were hardly the “last, best chance” to act in democracy’s defense. For all the good they would have done, the bills would only have had a limited effect on the biggest short-term threat to American democracy: election subversion, in which partisan political actors distort or outright disregard legitimate election results. The battle against these tactics was always going to take place in multiple arenas, most of which are outside of Washington. Across the country, at the state and local level, Trump supporters are volunteering or running for local positions that would put them in charge of the mechanics of elections. According to an NPR analysis, at least 15 Republicans who doubt or deny the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory are campaigning for state secretaries of state. For anyone concerned with American democracy, defeating these candidates should be a priority. At the federal level, Republicans have signaled openness to reforming the Electoral Count Act (ECA) — the obscure federal law that opened the door to then-Vice President Mike Pence potentially overturning the 2020 election at Trump’s behest. The reform isn’t perfect but it’s worth pursuing, especially since a bipartisan coalition in the Senate might be willing to consider it. These fights — contesting thousands of local elections and passing less ambitious but bipartisan reform legislation — may not be as emotionally satisfying as landmark elections overhaul. They won’t address voter suppression and gerrymandering, which still pose challenges for American democracy. But they do move the needle in ways that the doomsaying this week can obscure. The Senate bills wouldn’t have fixed the most immediate democratic crisis The Democrats’ two bills would have addressed some large and significant problems, most notably state laws to suppress the vote and extreme partisan gerrymandering. These state efforts tilt the playing field in the GOP’s direction and create significant burdens on groups attempting to get voters from minority communities to the polls; there is a reason why leading experts on democracy widely supported the Democrats’ voting rights proposals. And yet the impact of these bills’ failures might not be as significant as some fear, at least when it comes to the next election cycle. Studies suggest that voter ID laws, for example, don’t significantly depress minority turnout. It doesn’t make such laws okay, of course — they sap valuable activist resources and there’s little doubt about their racist intent — but it’s worth noting that the evidence suggests their effects on election outcomes is fairly limited. Partisan gerrymandering remains a problem, particularly at the state legislative level, but the current round of House redistricting is turning out far less tilted in the GOP’s direction than Democrats had feared. Republicans are certainly still working to erode Democrats’ access to the ballot box, in ways that really do threaten American democracy. But their work has not been quite as effective as some dire analyses assumed ( including my own), giving reformers more time to come up with solutions before the system is past the point of no democratic return. The story is different when it comes to election subversion. Anti-democratic forces are moving to seize control over the system more swiftly than even some of the most pessimistic analyses had feared.

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