Democrats Are Short on Votes and Long on Irony

The party’s signature election-reform bill faces long odds in Congress, in part because of the problems it seeks to address.

An illustration of a donkey with large stack of papers stretching over the the body
Alamy / Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Call it a catch-535: Democrats in Congress are trying to pass a huge slate of voting-related reforms, under the name of the For the People Act, or H.R. 1, that could aggressively reshape U.S. elections, change the way Americans vote, and also go a long way toward alleviating the Democratic Party’s structural electoral disadvantages. But the Democrats have to pass this bill with the tight margins they have in the House of Representatives and the Senate, thanks in part to the same structural disadvantages. The party finds itself short on votes and long on irony.

The challenge of the bill is that, aside from advancing the vague concept of democratic reforms, it doesn’t present a single theory of how to reform the electoral system, but is instead a palimpsest of Democratic freak-outs, with more recent ones piled atop older ones. At the top are measures that would push back on the voter-suppression laws currently in consideration or newly enacted by states with Republican legislatures, the most acute worry among progressives today. One level down are rules to mitigate or eliminate partisan gerrymandering, something many in the Democratic Party considered the most urgent election problem during the Trump years. Below that are new campaign-finance rules, representing the big concern of the late Obama years.

Although H.R. 1 has been around for a couple of years—it was the first thing Democrats introduced in 2019, when they took over the House—it uses the same strategy that the party adopted for COVID-19 relief and infrastructure: Throw as much stuff as possible in and try to ram it through. A Democratic aide told Vox’s Andrew Prokop that about 60 separate bills were rolled together to make this bill. That worked with the relief package, but it’s creating complications for H.R. 1.

Many Democrats support certain versions of campaign-finance reform, for example. But some of them, such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are uncomfortable with the federal government meddling with state power over election administration (though it’s been done plenty in the past). Black Democrats are eager to roll back changes such as Georgia’s new law, which Senator Raphael Warnock has branded “Jim Crow in new clothes,” but The New York Times reports that some of them are also wary of independent commissions handling redistricting, a central idea of the bill but one that might carve up majority-minority districts, especially in the South.

All of the proposals are plausible reforms to improve democracy, though many Republicans disagree with these ideas. The various elements of the bill aren’t really at odds with one another, even if their supporters are. But they represent different theories about the most perilous threat to Democrats and to their voters.

Movements to reform campaign finance have been around since Mark Hanna pioneered the big-money campaign in 1896. Many have been bipartisan, culminating in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. But in the 21st century, campaign-finance reform has largely been a progressive priority. Left-of-center concerns grew especially sharp after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, and for a time, many Democrats viewed that decision as the most pressing matter in politics. Unrestrained corporate donations would warp democracy, they warned, and also swamp Democratic candidates with donations to GOP candidates.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton placed that worry at the center of her presidential campaign. “We need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights, not restrict them,” she said in her nomination-acceptance speech. “And we'll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United!” (This was somewhat personal for Clinton—the Supreme Court case centered on a film attacking her—though she also enjoyed the support of super PACs that the decision had enabled during the campaign.)

Of course, Clinton did not move to overturn the decision, because she did not win. But her loss and the 2016 election were the beginning of the eclipse of campaign-finance reform as a central issue for Democrats. The rise of the fundraising platform ActBlue, and especially the astonishing small-dollar success of Senator Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign, showed that Democrats could compete by amassing small donations. Meanwhile, pro-Clinton spending (both by her campaign and by outside groups) far outpaced pro-Trump spending. In 2020, the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, barely mentioned Citizens United during his campaign.

In its place came a new worry about gerrymandering. Democrats had been concerned about gerrymandering since the post-2010-census round of redistricting, in which Republicans used their power in state capitals very effectively to draw districts favorable to GOP candidates. Now redistricting came to the fore, fed by the realization that Democrats were winning a larger portion of the popular vote than of seats in the House, and a fear of Republican gains being locked in during the next round of post-census line-drawing. Using race as a criterion for gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but new court cases sought to make gerrymandering designed to disadvantage partisans unconstitutional, too. But then Democrats won back the House in 2018, assuaging (though not actually mitigating) worries about the party’s structural disadvantage in the House. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering wasn’t an issue for the courts, sapping energy from the drive to address it.

Democrats have now acquired a new central issue: voter suppression. This one isn’t novel, either—Republican legislatures have been trying to make voting harder for decades, often with laws that target Democratic voters. Measures such as voter-ID requirements have inspired pitched battles around the country, especially in North Carolina. But the 2020 election thrust suppression into the center of national politics. Democrats won the presidential and U.S. Senate races by small margins in traditionally Republican states such as Georgia and Arizona, in both cases relying heavily on minority voters. In the aftermath, President Donald Trump led Republicans in espousing baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.

The result has been more than 350 bills to restrict voting around the country, according to a late-March tally by the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly all of them pushed by Republicans. It’s impossible to know how many GOP legislators sincerely believe the specious fraud claims—though there is no excuse for that—and how many of them are simply adopting them as a pretext. Either way, the result is a series of bills (and in some cases laws) that would make voting harder and are likely to most significantly affect voters—members of minority groups, the very young, the poor—who lean Democratic. Among other measures, legislatures have sought to enact or tighten requirements to show photo IDs to vote, cracked down on absentee voting, and scaled back voting access.

Two distinct issues are at play. One is moral: Making it harder for lawful voters to cast ballots, to prevent fraud that doesn’t exist, is abhorrent. The second is instrumental: Democrats fear that given the close margins in many 2020 races, and given their minuscule edge in the House and Senate, allowing these measures to stand could doom the party electorally. (Some analysts doubt how serious the effects of the state changes might be.)

For any politician, the most pressing problem is always going to be the one that seems likely to cost you the next election, and H.R. 1’s measures to combat voter-suppression laws have received the lion’s share of attention. The bill would make voter registration automatic, allow voters to sign affidavits to circumvent voter-ID laws, expand early voting, and require easy mail voting. It would also prevent purges of infrequent voters from the rolls, a tactic that has become more popular in GOP-led states, and require that people who have been convicted of felonies be allowed to vote once they’ve completed their sentences.

Because many Democrats currently see the voter-suppression laws as an existential threat, they’ve focused on these parts of H.R. 1. But the bill also includes lots of ideas that respond to those past existential threats. To prevent partisan gerrymandering, H.R. 1 would require that congressional districts be drawn by independent commissions, a model that some states already use. On the campaign-finance front, it would force new disclosures about campaign expenditures. Less prominently, but perhaps more controversially, it would expand public matching of campaign funds. The bill also contains a grab bag of other ideas, such as requiring presidential candidates to release tax returns—a provision that seems mostly targeted at Trump.

The pile-up of Democratic panics new and old reflects how the party has found itself at a structural disadvantage in contemporary politics. Democrats are also right to worry that they have a single shot at making reforms before they lose control of Congress, as is likely in 2022—a danger that could be exacerbated by a failure to pass H.R. 1. Because of that structural disadvantage, their next chance to change the system could be years away. But the law’s many parts may sap it of support, because it lacks a single focal point, and members of Congress who back one set of reforms may have hesitations about others.

One Democrat who’s been relatively disengaged from the H.R. 1 discourse is President Biden. Biden supports the bill, of course, but the White House has directed its focus at a huge infrastructure package, which could take up months of the legislative calendar. While members of his party are digging through several levels of new and old democracy reforms, the president seems more interested in shovel-ready projects.