Former US president Donald Trump‘s months-long campaign to convince Americans of election fraud is morphing into a years-long legislative skirmish.
Yesterday, the Democratic-held House of Representatives passed a sweeping, 791-page bill aimed at standardising federal elections, with a stated aim of making polls more fair by ending voter suppression.
It’s being described as “historic” and “monumental”, but it’s highly unlikely to become law.
The Democrats control the Senate with only a tie-breaking vote, and the threshold for passing such a bill would require support from at least 10 Republicans.
The two parties can’t even agree on an economic stimulus bill that 76 per cent of Americans support, let alone a policy area that led to bloodshed in the US Capitol just a few months ago.
For now, any changes to voting — shoring up “voter rights” or “election security,” depending on one’s political views — are going to come from the states.
And one party is already racking up a huge advantage.
In the wake of their 2020 losses at the federal level, the Republicans are staking their comeback strategy to changing voting laws locally.
It’s a decentralised attack that Democrats say amounts to voter suppression — but it won’t matter for the Republicans if it works.
The Republicans are passing an array of voting restrictions
One left-leaning organisation has counted more than 253 voting restriction bills being drafted by Republicans in 43 statehouses.
These bills target the same measures that Democrats want to standardise: Mail-in voting, early voting, weekend voting, drop-box voting, extended voting hours — basically all the practices that states adopted to make voting easier during the pandemic.
Those practices, not coincidentally, made voting more accessible — especially to young voters and people of colour, who traditionally side with Democrats.
The 2020 election saw the highest turn-out in US history.
But the Republicans say these changes were unfair, if not outright fraudulent, robbing Mr Trump of a victory. This idea continues to resonate with about 65 per cent of the party’s voters, even as judges of every rank and political affiliation uniformly say otherwise.
One election expert told NBC news the Republicans’ push to roll back the changes “seems to be addressing a problem that isn’t there”.
Reducing turn-out is central to the Republicans’ chances
Voting security was the number one discussion topic at the party’s annual convention last weekend, with many of the speakers peddling unsubstantiated claims about fraud.
The Republican National Committee also launched a special taskforce on election integrity, which will advise statehouses on the best policy pushes.
Even the Republicans who believe the election was fair say the laws are needed, if for no other reason than to restore their constituents’ faith in the process of voting.
But by acting on the myth so urgently, the Republicans are only lending it more credibility, the Democrats say.
In the short term, that’s left the nation on edge, bracing for another display like the one that took five lives at the US Capitol on January 6. Talk of an armed protest today, for example, caused the House to cancel its legislative session.
The Republicans’ logic lies in looking past those risks, towards stopping unrest by reclaiming power.
An attorney for the Republicans said it best. When asked during Supreme Court arguments this week why he was defending a law that makes voting harder for racial minorities, he wasn’t subtle:
That same Supreme Court case is likely to dismantle a civil rights-era voting act and establish a new legal standard that’s more favourable towards voting restrictions.
In other words, casting a ballot in the US could get a lot harder than it already is.
Inaction poses the greatest risk for the Democrats
If successful, the Republicans’ strategy could snowball into devastating long-term damage for the Democrats.
The Republicans already have the advantage in the 2022 midterms. History shows that the party that loses the presidency is the one more likely to win back congressional control.
If the Republicans are able to eke out control of both the House and the Senate, there’d be nothing to stop them from passing their own bill standardising voting restrictions. That’d make winning harder for the Democrats in 2024 — and virtually every election until they win again.
Yet, the current response from Democratic voters feels as decentralised as the state bills themselves. There’s little sign of pushback or protest — a notably muted response after years of compounding political outrage.
Without a mob smashing into the Capitol, the election fraud narrative doesn’t feel viscerally threatening.
Without Donald Trump, there’s no stream of new soundbites to trigger a sense of danger.
Instead, for Democrats and Republicans alike, the distrust of democracy has become so rote it’s borderline banal.
And the question over who has the power to change it — who gets to vote — is able to persist with a menacing vigour, filling up chapters of campaign strategy books in permanent ink.