A Republic: Can We Keep It?

I remember an old and possibly apocryphal story about Benjamin Franklin and the framing of the Constitution. Supposedly, someone accosted him after the 1787 Constitutional Convention and shouted, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

Today, the republic is threatened by Republicans attacking voting rights a cross the country. They propose state voting legislation targeting people of color and poor people. Some proposals also aim to disenfranchise any other population that might be more Democratic-leaning than Republican, such as college students.

The sheer volume of proposals is appalling:

“There is an avalanche of new voting restrictions being imposed by Republican legislators across the country. When Popular Information covered this issue in February, the Brennan Center had identified 165 bills to restrict voting rights across 33 states. Less than a month later, the group has identified 253 bills to restrict voting rights in 43 states. These bills would impose a variety of measures to make voting harder, including reducing opportunities for early voting, limiting the use of mail-in ballots, eliminating drop boxes, and imposing new voter ID requirements.” 

In addition to state legislation, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court threatens voting rights. That case is Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. The DNC successfully challenged an Arizona law that criminalizes voter assistance, making it illegal for anyone except a member of the immediate family to help return an absentee ballot. That’s an especially pernicious provision for residents of the Navajo nation in Arizona, as former DNC chair Tom Perez explained to NPR

“Many people aren’t even on a postal route, he observes. ‘Some people have to travel an hour or two to get to a mailbox, and so voting requires the active assistance of friends and neighbors.’

“That active assistance often involves community and party activists who collect absentee ballots from people who don’t have cars so that the sealed ballots can be delivered to a post office or drop box. The Republican-dominated state legislature wants to make such assistance a felony.”

The Arizona law also bars the counting of absentee ballots cast in the wrong precinct—even when those are ballots for statewide office, even when precinct boundaries and voting locations have changed between elections. 

While Republicans make a lot of noise about voter fraud, that fraud is virtually non-existent. A comprehensive database maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation found  “just over 1,200 cases of vote fraud of all forms, resulting in 1,100 criminal convictions, over the past 20 years. Of these, 204 involved the fraudulent use of absentee ballots; 143 resulted in criminal convictions.”

MIT elections scholar Charles Stewart and National Vote At Home Institute CEO Amber McReynolds explain

“One hundred forty-three cases of fraud using mailed ballots over the course of 20 years comes out to seven to eight cases per year, nationally. It also means that across the 50 states, there has been an average of three cases per state over the 20-year span. That is just one case per state every six or seven years. We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast. 

“Oregon is the state that started mailing ballots to all voters in 2000 and has worked diligently to put in place stringent security measures, as well as strict punishments for those who would tamper with a mailed ballot. For that state, the following numbers apply: With well over 50 million ballots cast, there have been only two fraud cases verifiable enough to result in convictions for mail-ballot fraud in 20 years. That is 0.000004 percent — about five times less likely than getting hit by lightning in the United States.”

When voting fraud does happen, it is at least as likely to be perpetrated by Republicans—such as the North Carolina Republican operative arrested for tampering with mail-in ballots in the 2018 election or the Pennsylvania man who voted multiple times for Trump in 2020, pretending to be his dead mother and mother-in-law. 

Democracy is about participation and about voting—not about keeping your opponents from voting by making it more difficult. Republican proposals to restrict voting by mail, to make registration more difficult, to require more forms of identification at the polls, to decrease the number of polling places, to shorten the period for early voting, and to make voting on Sundays illegal are all attempts to suppress voting and stifle democracy. 

One way to fight back is by passing HR 1, the For the People Act of 2021 and HR 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. 

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore the parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were vitiated by the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision. This legislation honors John R. Lewis, long-time U.S. Congressman who beatings, concussions, and jail for his voting rights and civil rights advocacy in the 1960s. The Shelby v. Holder decision threw out the section of the Voting Rights Act that required states that have historically denied African Americans voting rights to get a Department of Justice sign-off on changes in their voting laws. Restoring that provision is important, but does not go far enough. Today’s attacks on voting rights are not limited to the south. 

The For the People Act would safeguard voting rights across the country. Historian Heather Cox Richardson describes the bill and popular support for it:

“The For the People Act, numbered in Congress as H.R. 1 and S. 1, would provide for automatic voter registration across the country and would require paper ballots. It would require that early voting be made available, and would expand mail-in voting. It would authorize $1 billion for upgrades to state voting systems.

“Polling by Data for Progress and Vote Save America shows that the principles in H.R. 1 are very popular, across parties. Sixty-eight percent of Americans approve of the reforms in the bill. Sixteen percent oppose the measure. The items within the bill are also popular. Eighty-six percent of Americans support a plan to prevent foreign interference in our elections; 7% oppose it. Eighty-five percent of us want to limit the amount of politics; 8% oppose that idea. Eighty-four percent of us want more election security; 8 percent do not. 

“Seventy-four percent of us want to see nonpartisan redistricting; 11% do not. Sixty-eight percent want to see 15 days of early voting; 19% do not. Sixty percent want same-day voter registration; 29% do not. Fifty-nine percent want automatic voter registration; 29% do not. Even with the Republican attacks on mail-in voting, fifty-eight percent of us want to be able to vote by mail; 35% do not.”

Listen up, Senators: this is still a republic, and you need to act so that we can keep it. 

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