Opinion

Democrats may only have one chance to stop America from becoming a one-party state

Why the U.S. needs voting rights protections and D.C. statehood, now

The United States has only lived up to basic standards of democracy for a few decades of its history. In parts of the South, the last scraps of Jim Crow tyranny were only rooted out through massive federal coercion in the mid-1970s. That said, there has almost always been genuine competition for national power between the two parties — the one exception being the Civil War, but even in that case the South attempted to secede from the country rather than conquer the whole thing.

That competition may come to an end very soon. Democrats right now control the presidency and Congress by a very thin margin — just one vote in the Senate. Republicans are plotting to win back control of Congress not by getting more votes, but by cheating. If Democrats do not exercise their power now to pass, at a minimum, protections for voting rights, requirements for fair congressional districts, and statehood for Washington, D.C., Republicans will in all likelihood succeed in turning America into a one-party state.

The strategy goes something like this. Republicans rig district boundaries in every state legislature they can. Then they use control of the state process to rig congressional district boundaries, and pass vote suppression laws to make it as hard as possible for liberals to vote. A couple rounds of this and it becomes nearly impossible to dislodge the party from the legislature — as is already seen in notionally swing states like Wisconsin, where Republicans have a stranglehold on both the State Assembly and State Senate despite Democrats winning roughly equal vote shares in recent elections.

Republicans have already gerrymandered themselves a large handicap in the House, and they are now openly plotting a fresh round of cheating during the upcoming post-census redistricting process. New ever-more blatant efforts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters are afoot — 106 bills and counting have been introduced in 28 states to restrict mail-in voting, add more layers of burdensome ID requirements, purge more voters from the rolls, limit voter registration, and so on, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Meanwhile, the Electoral College is structurally biased against Democrats — Republicans have won the presidential popular vote precisely once in the last 32 years, and Donald Trump came within a whisker of winning the electoral vote count despite losing the popular vote by 7 million. Now Republicans in some states like Arizona are plotting to rig it anyway by allowing state legislatures to overrule voters and award electoral votes themselves. The median Senate seat is also about 7 points biased towards Republicans.

And if all that doesn't work, there's always the Trump method of trying to seize power through a coup. After he lost, he filed dozens of completely nonsense lawsuits trying to overturn the election, tried to get Vice President Pence and his party's congressional caucus to declare him president, and capped it all off by whipping up a violent mob to storm the Capitol, halt the certification of President Biden's victory, and somehow reinstall himself in power. Five people were killed, and dozens injured in the attempted putsch — and instead of Republicans doing any kind of reckoning with what they've done, Senate Republicans will soon vote to acquit. Trump's lies about the election are being used to justify many of those new vote suppression measures in the name of "trust" and "integrity" and the party will remain a violent personality cult indefinitely.

In short, Republicans have been been signaling ever-more loudly that they believe only their party can legitimately hold power, and that they will use any tool at their disposal to stop Democrats from winning elections, including open fraud and violence. And if they do, they can and will use that power to try to make it impossible for Democrats to win ever again.

So what should Democrats do? The most obvious immediate solution is to ban gerrymandering, pass new protections for voting rights, and add new states to somewhat un-rig the Senate. There are already bills drawn up to do this: The For the People Act would put district boundary-drawing in the hands of nonpartisan commissions, and add sweeping new protections for voting rights and election integrity, while the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act would overturn the Supreme Court decision gutting the original Voting Right Act. D.C. statehood has been drawn up as well — which would not only make the Senate somewhat more fair, but also would give D.C. residents their rightful representation in Congress and allow the D.C. government to use its National Guard to protect the Capitol, as Trump allegedly prevented for a time during the Capitol putsch.

There is also a cleaner, more effective, and more permanent way to solve the gerrymandering problem. As Lee Drutman argues, one root of the current crisis is how social clustering and winner-take-all congressional districts encourage Republican extremism, because their only political threat is from a primary challenge. But if we elected House members in large, multi-member districts chosen through ranked-choice voting, that would no longer be the case.

Under such a system (varieties of which are in place in New Zealand and Germany), states would be split up into a few big districts with, say, 5 members. Then with ranked-choice voting, each voter puts the candidates in order of preference, and if her top choice can't win, her vote is reassigned to the second-place preference, and so on. That process continues until there are 5 top winners, and they go to Congress.

This would give just about everybody some kind of representation — from conservatives in New York City to liberals in Alabama — and ensure that votes for smaller parties would not be wasted. Total nutcase cranks would also face a much steeper penalty for extremism. It would also erode some of the boiling, hateful partisanship that fuels conservative extremism. At least two new parties (likely a green/social democratic party, and a business-libertarian party) would quickly become viable, and new coalitions thus made possible. No longer would there just be two factions contending for power in what seems like a struggle for total victory or total defeat.

Unfortunately, to pass any of the above reforms, Democrats would have to reform or abolish the Senate filibuster. So far the key votes, Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have ruled it out. But that may change when more details are known about the Capitol putsch, and popular bills expanding voting rights are blocked by Republicans. If either of them want to have a fair chance to win reelection in 2024, they will pass laws to protect American democracy.

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