My guest today is Steven Rosenfeld, an author, senior writing fellow and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome back to OpEdNews, Steven. We talked not long ago but things are hopping in our nation's capital. Recently, you wrote a piece Democrats in Congress unveil ambitious plan to fix our election system[1.4.19]. Tell us a bit about this legislation, please.
Steven Rosenfeld: That piece was about H.R. 1, the first non-spending bill introduced by the newly Democratic majority House. In a nutshell, this legislation is a combination of more than 20 previous bills that seek to reform what's anti-participatory, anti-transparent and unaccountable in the voting process, campaign finance, and the arena of ethical behavior by top federal officials. You could label H.R.1 as an anti-corruption measure, but that's a bit narrow. It is a vast catalog of almost all that's broken and anti-democratic, and what it takes to address these facets of our political culture and system--or make serious progress in that direction.
JB: For this election integrity veteran, It's music to my ears. Whose idea was it to put all these bills together in a single package? What was the political calculation for doing so? It seems like it would be much more difficult to work with, to get it passed in its enormity and sheer comprehensiveness. Or is that not the point? What am I missing here?
SR: It's interesting to hear you say this is music to your ears. This to-do list, indeed, validates and updates much of what I detailed in my last book about the anti-democratic features of voting in America today. And sadly, there is a stark partisan divide in much of this, because the GOP is a party with a shrinking demographic base and thus feels compelled to revise the law or the rules wherever possible to preserve their power.
Here is a link to the summary of all the elements of H.R. 1, which is probably more granular than most readers will want to parse. I have heard that this bill is aspirational, in a sense that it draws a symbolic divide with the GOP and also is akin to a party platform document. To me, that way of characterizing it is a bit disappointing. These are the concrete steps, and this big list is by no means complete of what's needed so our elections reflect the values of fairness, competition, accountability and transparency.
Now, I must say, I get pushback from the left and right, when I say stuff like that. Many readers of OpEd News, or at least commenters, have foregone conclusions that the system is so rigged and corrupt that nothing will make it better. I disagree. And others say that I am defending those on the inside who administer elections by suggesting that certain steps can be taken to improve the process and have more accountable and trustable results: from participation to vote counts. On the other hand, what are we supposed to do? Give up on improving the process? Say none of this matters, even if H.R. 1 is dead-on-arrival in Mitch McConnell's Senate?
JB: Let's put aside for the moment the rather large stumbling block of Mitch McConnell and his Republican majority in the Senate. How do the House Dems deal with such a large compendium of bills? It's like trying to tidy up an octopus. How do they discuss the many broken aspects of our elections and reach a consensus on them all? Just because the 22 bills are all lumped under a single umbrella doesn't guarantee that they all share equal support among the majority of House Dems; or does it? Or is this just an exercise, to demonstrate the Democrats' belated understanding of this very unlevel playing field? I'm trying to understand the logistics here.
SR: What I have heard is that different committees will have jurisdiction over different parts of it. Also, for example, I heard that the effort to restore the main enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965--which gave the Justice Department veto power over any election process change in jurisdictions with previous histories of institutional discrimination; but was gutted by a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling--was being handled in a separate bill and legislative process. So we will have to see how this all plays out. At the very least I expect there will be House hearings on the reforms, which will raise their profile.
But you raise an interesting question--do you look at this menu in a holistic manner or a more granular manner. Obviously a more systemic approach is preferable. If we were fortunate to see any of these reforms make it into law--or push states to adopt similar reforms in the absence of federal action--their impacts would vary by geography. That's because the landscape of voting obstacles varies state by state, with, of course, a federal overlay.
JB: So you're not cynical enough to think of this as merely pre-2020 grandstanding. You think that Democrats finally get that a broken system does not serve them as a party or the American people as a whole? If so, what finally pushed them over the edge? I raise this point because we've been talking and writing about this dysfunctional system in all its many varied aspects for many many years!
SR: I don't think this is grandstanding any more than the House Dems introducing strong gun control legislation is grandstanding. I think they are reacting to the issues that resonate with their base, which, by the way, represents a popular vote majority nationwide. They had the biggest midterm turnout in in generations. So many people are paying attention to the voting issues that used to be inside ball. For example, look at the state ballot initiatives dealing with gerrymanders that passed in a handful of red-run states. Look at the many women elected to the House from communities that are no longer white majority as they were a decade ago. People in these states are attuned to how the Supreme Court's conservative majority isn't upholding more inclusive voting rights and policies. The House's omnibus voting bill is a pent-up reaction to that.
Now realists will sigh and point to the GOP's intransigence in the Senate. That's not only on this issue. But what I think the Democrats are doing is raising the profile of issues and an agenda to pursue once the political pendulum and majority swings back their way. When will that happen? No one can predict. But 2018's results suggest the tides are turning. Is that being naive? I don't think so. By the way, as of January 10, H.R 1 had 221 sponsors--enough to pass the House.
JB: That's definitely encouraging. And there's certainly nothing wrong with taking the moral high ground. Making our elections more inclusive, fair and transparent are all worthy goals. The question is how to convert a wish list into something more. If the Democrats turned to you for advice on how to proceed, what would you advise them?
SR: Well, they are not going to do that! But it would be useful to have congressional hearings on the elements. We have no idea what is going to happen with Trump's government shutdown, the Mueller investigation, Mitch McConnell's stonewalling. All of those factors and others we cannot predict could coalesce into a moment when enough of a majority of the voting public feels it has become time to press the reset button. If we are fortunate enough for that to happen, the Dems should have a menus of reforms ready to remake the political landscape. I am not expecting human nature to change, or greed to disappear, or power hungry people to vanish. But the majority of the country has always taken pride in the Civil Rights Movement and this slate restores those gains, as opposed to rolling back the clock.