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‘Our democracy is fundamentally at stake’ — UW’s Jake Grumbach on limits to voter access

University of Washington
9-Jun-2021 2:10 PM EDT, by University of Washington

As Congress considers expanding voting rights legislation and some Republican-led states restrict access to voting, a group of faculty from institutions around the country is calling for national election standards.

In an open letter on the New America website, a growing list of signatories — more than 175 as of June 8 — warns of the dire threat to democracy posed by efforts to curb voter access and alter election oversight.

Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington who specializes in state politics and voting issues, signed the letter “because the threat has reached a crisis level. The U.S. is at risk of significant backsliding into a mixed authoritarian regime.”

The specific way that federalism in the United States is decentralized — allowing election administration and legislative districting, for example, to be determined by the states — makes these democratic institutions vulnerable to the decisions and partisan leanings of state governments, Grumbach said.

Initiatives to change electoral procedures in several GOP-led states, authors of the letter in the New America write, “are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”

Grumbach addressed some of the issues raised in the letter with UW News.


Why are some of the current state-level efforts viewed as so egregious, and how do they stack up against other voting-related restrictions in the country’s history?

My research has tracked democratic backsliding in the states over the past two decades. Democratic backsliding has come from state government efforts to suppress votes and gerrymander districts, as well as to criminalize forms of protest and speech. These moves exacerbate the preexisting problems of unequal representation in the Senate and Electoral College, where the votes of millions of Americans don't matter. Furthermore, some Republican state legislatures are signaling that they might engage in electoral subversion -- refusing to certify the Electoral College votes of a Democratic presidential candidate should they win the majority of the states' votes.

As dangerous as these moves are, there are two important pieces of context. First, it is important to note that the U.S. was not a “real” democracy until the abolition of Jim Crow disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Today's democratic backsliding is not yet at that level. Second, my research shows that democratic performance has polarized in recent decades. Some states, like Colorado and Washington, are expanding access to voting and making districts more fair, while others, like North Carolina and Wisconsin, are doing the opposite. The ballot is probably as accessible in today's Washington state as it has ever been in U.S. history, which is a triumph. But in other states, voter suppression has made the ballot more inaccessible.

On the other hand, the potential for election subversion is especially high today. Because the Constitution gives state legislatures power over election administration, it might be legal for them to refuse to give their Electoral College votes to a presidential candidate from the opposing party regardless of the election results. This is an extreme risk. 


How did the outcome of the 2020 election set the stage for these developments? 

Republican state legislatures introduced and passed hundreds of voter suppression bills after the 2020 presidential election. Building on decades of conspiracies about "voter fraud," Republican candidates and officeholders have endorsed the "Stop the Steal" conspiracy that the 2020 election was fraudulent. These trends, among others, suggest that the Republican coalition has turned against democratic institutions, and refuses to accept the legitimacy of its political opponents.

Across the world and throughout history, conservative political parties have decided whether democracy lives or dies. Conservative parties of business and the wealthy, like the Republican Party, tend to have a less popular economic agenda as the economy becomes more unequal (as the U.S. is now). That means that these parties face a dilemma: Do you moderate your economic platform and accept some defeats, or do you introduce other forms of conflict (like racial conflict) and reject democracy? 


Why are some of the laws proposed at the federal level, such as the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, insufficient to address these concerns? 

Neither bill contains sufficient protections against election subversion, the potential for state legislatures to refuse to certify election results.

The For the People Act, or H.R. 1, is a national policy with a number of critically important reforms to election administration, voter registration, legislative districting and campaign finance. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is a much narrower bill that would restore many of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, such as federal preclearance for election administration changes, which were dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. H.R. 1 would be a much stronger reinforcement of American democratic institutions than the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, especially with its anti-gerrymandering provisions. Still, neither bill looks likely to get through the Senate, as it would require getting around the filibuster (which Sen. Joe Manchin has opposed). 


How are national voting and election administration standards a solution?

Throughout U.S. history, it has been the national government that has stepped in to enforce rules establishing electoral democracy against state governments. Today, a national coalition is using state governments to make American democracy more unequal and narrow. It's crucial for the national government to step in to enforce election and other democratic standards across the states.


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