Steven V. Roberts: Trumpism’s lethal legacy

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 25, 2021

It’s time to get serious about protecting voting rights, and three recent developments make this goal more urgent than ever.

First, all 50 Republican senators blocked a Democratic bill aimed at widening voter participation from even reaching the floor. True, the bill was loaded down with pet liberal proposals like public financing of elections, but the GOP has now shown it is totally uninterested in discussing even modest, reasonable reforms.

The second development is taking place in state capitals, where Republican legislators are pushing a plethora of bills designed to make voting harder, not easier. Even more insidious is the Republican effort to undermine how votes are counted, not just cast. A number of states have passed measures that could threaten the independence of election officials, the same officials who bravely stood up to Donald Trump’s lies about a “rigged” election.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, has said, “I’ve taken a look at all the new state laws — none of them are designed to suppress the vote.” But that is a flat-out, boldfaced falsehood.

The Washington Post called the state-based assault on election officials “an underappreciated threat to U.S. democracy.” Katie Hobbs, the secretary of state in Arizona, added in the Post: “Republicans aren’t just protesting the results of our most recent presidential election; they are laying the groundwork to steal the next one.”

The third factor is the slight possibility that Sen. Joe Manchin and other moderate Democrats who support the filibuster would agree to carve out an exception for a carefully tailored measure that focuses on just one clear goal — to make voting easier. Manchin has outlined just such a compromise, which drops the more controversial elements of the Democrats’ original bill and even includes a favorite GOP proposal, encouraging the use of voter IDs at the polls.

Manchin has long insisted that any voting bill should be bipartisan — a worthy goal. But since it’s now obvious that goal is impossible, Manchin and others are left with only two choices: amend the filibuster, or allow the Republican assault on voting rights to go unchecked.

Unfortunately, Manchin has backed himself into a deep corner, with repeated statements against any alteration in the filibuster. But that rule has actually been amended 161 times previously, according to the Brookings Institution, and numerous exceptions exist. Federal judgeship nominations cannot be filibustered, nor can some budget bills or trade deals. Certainly, guarding the sacred right to vote is just as deserving of special treatment.

The odds are, however, that Manchin will not agree to altering the filibuster. If that’s the case, voting rights forces will have to redouble their efforts in three other areas to counteract Republican suppression efforts. The first is organizing and educating voters, and Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC, has already announced a $20 million campaign to do just that.

“The purpose of this program is to really center the voters who we know are particularly targeted by the Republicans’ suppression efforts,” Danielle Butterfield, the organization’s executive director, told The New York Times. “Those are voters of color, Black and Latino voters specifically, and we plan to center them both in our creative and our targeting to make sure that they are aware of how empowering voting is.”

The second front is legal challenges to many of the laws passed by Republican legislatures. Last year showed that even federal judges appointed by President Trump, bolstered by lifetime tenure, were able to resist his campaign of subversion. Attorney General Merrick Garland has announced he will double the number of lawyers committed to combatting voter suppression and said, “There are many things that are open to debate in America, but the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them.”

In some states, even red ones, it remains possible to actually expand voting rights through bipartisan legislation, and one example is Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s home state, which scaled up absentee voting for future elections.

Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican who backed his state’s policy changes, said the GOP needs to “stop being scared of voters,” reports the Post. “I think it’s an unforced error to shoot themselves in the foot in these states by shrinking access. You don’t need to do that.”


Steven Roberts teaches  at George Washington University. Email him at