It’s been a year since one of the worst attacks on our democracy, when armed insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol to thwart the will of the people as Congress prepared to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.
One would think, in a functioning democratic republic, that in the following year we would do whatever it took to prevent the same kind of attack to our democracy in the future. But our institutions remain as vulnerable as ever. The right to vote—our most cherished constitutional right—continues to be under assault.
Soon after the January 6 insurrection, some politicians, including Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, said all the right things. As Congress met on that fateful day, McConnell explained that Congress should not overturn the election results: “We’ll either hasten down a poisonous path where only the winners of election actually accept the results, or show we can still muster the patriotic courage that our forebearers showed not only in victory, but in defeat.”
A few weeks later, even after voting to acquit President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, McConnell noted that the insurrection stemmed from “an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories, orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”
In the months that have passed, however, McConnell and his fellow Republicans have done nothing to help secure those very institutions that were under immense attack during the 2020 election.
We now know that Trump and his allies orchestrated a detailed plan to nullify the results of the 2020 election. They sought to have Vice President Mike Pence refuse to count the votes from certain swing states, despite any evidence about problems in those states. Recently, the public has learned that there was a horrendous proposal to harass election officials at their homes.
Yet, while prosecutors have brought charges against some of the Capitol rioters, none of the primary orchestrators of the attack on democracy have been held accountable, such as Trump himself (though Congress’s select committee is still investigating). More concerningly, we have done virtually nothing to shore up our election system. Rather, states have enacted ever-more-restrictive voting rules. Many of these new laws attack the independence of election officials, placing authority within partisan bodies and giving them power that could let them overturn the results of a future election. Democracy survived in 2020 because certain individuals, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, refused to “find” additional votes for Trump to win the state. But what if a Trump ally is in that position in 2024?
Meanwhile, states are engaged in the process of redistricting to redraw congressional and state legislative maps and are doing so without a key protection of the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court gutted the law in 2013. What’s more, in 2019, a majority of justices said that federal courts are closed for claims of unlawful partisan gerrymandering. Democracy will be skewed even further because incumbent politicians are drawing lines to keep themselves in power.
The solutions are plentiful—if we just have the political will to adopt them.
First, Congress must update the Electoral Count Act, the 1887 law that dictates how Congress counts Electoral College votes. The law’s wording is confusing, which opened the door for Trump and his allies to use its convoluted language to jam the process last January. Congress should make it harder to object to a state’s certified election results. There is nothing partisan about fixing this law, so McConnell and his fellow Republicans should immediately announce their support.
Second, Congress should declare that Trump is ineligible to serve as president again under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. That section disqualifies anyone who, having taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” Trump’s incitement of the Capitol insurrection surely qualifies to make him ineligible to be president again. His continued lies about election integrity remain an existential threat. If Trump runs in 2024 and courts are confronted with the question, they too should declare him ineligible under this provision.
Third, Congress should pass meaningful voting rights reform. It is better to try real negotiation with Republicans on this matter, as one side should not have all the power to dictate election rules. But if Republicans continue to refuse to even come to the negotiating table, then Democrats should eliminate the filibuster for this issue and pass a law to enhance the right to vote. Importantly, the proposed bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, has components that both Democrats and Republicans should favor, such as redistricting reform and required best practices on post-election audits. If Republicans truly cared about our electoral system, they would debate the measure in good faith.
It is a sad commentary that we have done so little to protect our democracy one year after it almost collapsed. If we continue to do nothing, we may not have many years left.