When the last Democratic president took office, some hoped that he would push for nuts-and bolts reform of the democratic process. Barack Obama ran to not only change the policies of the previous eight years but also to make the political system more responsive to and reflective of ordinary people. And the memory of the 2000 election debacle was relatively fresh. Surely America could no longer put up with a situation where a presidential election was thrown into chaos by one state’s electoral meltdown and ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
But even before his inauguration, Obama was consumed by the financial crisis; any hopes for strengthening voter protections, boosting state election security, or fighting to get money out of politics went back on the shelf. Although he talked about election reform after his 2012 victory, the government was weighed down by other issues, like the manufactured fiscal-cliff crisis. Deploying executive actions to address these issues would have invited a political backlash—and, as we’ve learned watching President Donald Trump try to erase his predecessor’s work, such actions can be undone.
Despite Trump’s abysmal poll numbers, the deck this November is stacked against Democrats precisely because of the antidemocratic forces that shape American elections. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act’s central enforcement mechanism, leaving Republicans free to suppress the vote. Our decentralized election system means some states have stronger, more secure procedures than others. The Electoral College structurally favors low-population states, and in the present that means it favors Republicans. Dark money drowns out the voices of voters. In addition, the pandemic is making it harder than usual to register voters, and experts worry that states’ election systems are not prepared for the uptick in vote-by-mail.
Should Joe Biden overcome these obstacles, as well as Trump’s inevitable attempts to cheat, and win the presidency, he simply must devote his political capital to tackling the process issues that eluded the last Democratic president. Yes, he will inherit bigger problems even than Obama did—a pandemic Trump refuses to contain, which is causing an economic catastrophe he refuses to address. But Biden needs to recognize that if the democratic process doesn’t work—which it does not—then neither can democratic governance. He has a long list of reforms from which to choose.
In his eulogy for the late congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis, Obama offered some options, beginning with strengthening, expanding, and protecting the franchise. Because Republicans believe that they lose elections when people actually vote, they have recast the franchise itself as a political tool of the left. Biden should reject their absurd, unpatriotic premise and fight for the newly christened John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would undo some of the Supreme Court’s damage to the original Voting Rights Act. He should also push to implement automatic voter registration nationally, restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, and designate Election Day—a 19th-century agrarian relic—a federal holiday.
The list also includes making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico full-fledged states. Republicans complain that creating two almost certainly blue states would be a Democratic power grab. Of course, statehood has always been political. In the first half of the 19th century, it was tied to slavery; the granting of each new state was a calculated compromise between North and South, Jenga pieces carefully stacked until they collapsed into civil war. But today, to deny admittance to two states simply because they might both vote blue is an insult to the American citizens whose basic right to representation is being violated.
These structural reforms, not to mention any big policy initiatives, will be impossible without eliminating the filibuster, a procedure named after pirates, which was the consequence of a rather aggressive line edit of the Senate rules by none other than Aaron Burr. It has long been abused by senators, often in the name of white supremacy. Today, in a body that inherently stymies progress, the filibuster has become an unnecessary, anti-majoritarian roadblock. The Senate, heralded as the legislature’s “cooling saucer,” has frozen.
Biden could pursue these and any number of other possibilities, from campaign-finance reform to restructuring the courts. But above all, to paraphrase another presidential candidate, he must try something.
All that said, a President Joe Biden can’t do anything alone. He can use his bully pulpit. He can incentivize states to improve their election systems. He can advocate for legislation. But real, lasting change will require a willing Congress. And that means electing a Democratic Senate and maintaining a Democratic majority in the House.
The rhetorical promise of democracy is inspiring; the nitty-gritty of bringing it to life, less so. It is easy to put off the work, the unsexy details, of ensuring that government functions and voters are heard. There is always another crisis to solve or another policy to chase. But unless our leaders prioritize that work, we are in danger of remaining a hobbled, impotent, perpetually imperfect union.