Earl Warren always (and correctly) maintained that the voting rights decisions stemming from Baker v. Carr were more important than Brown v. Board, because disenfranchisement was critical to maintaining Jim Crow. He won’t admit this in public, but for the same reason Shelby County, Perez and Rucho are the very worst Roberts Court decisions because of how fundamentally they undermine democracy.
For this reason, reform of the political system has to be the top priority if Democrats take over the White House and Senate in 2021, not least because without it major substantive reform is impossible:
If Democrats do well in November, pressure will be overwhelming on members of Congress to deliver in key ways for interest groups that supported them. For members representing swing districts, it will seem risky to spend time and energy on process issues that might be seen as partisan power grabs. But these are not power grabs.
People of color who live in cities should have equal voting rights as rural whites. It’s a core demand for justice, and the fact that the system does not work that way makes it exceptionally difficult to make enduring progress on any economic, racial, or environmental justice topic. These inequities have never been justifiable, and the fact that they align sharply with partisan politics makes them worse, not better.
The good news is that Democrats have begun some of the necessary work to get changes done. In 2019, House Democrats wisely made political reform a top priority by writing and passing HR 1 — a package of election reform measures that included automatic voter registration and federal curbs on partisan gerrymandering. It went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Senate, but that could change if the majority flips.
Senate staffers generally say it’s good to look at what’s already passed in the House to get a sense of what a hypothetical Democratic-controlled Senate might take up. The House has also passed legislation to turn DC into a state. This could get 50 or 51 votes in the Senate, too, if Democrats do well in November.
But as Vox’s Ian Millhiser writes, neither bill has any chance of securing 60 votes, so hopes for Democratic reform hinge entirely on the prospects for enacting another democratic reform — abolition of the filibuster.
If change happens, historians may look back on former President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Rep. John Lewis as a watershed. Speaking at Lewis’s funeral, he called for an end to gerrymandering, statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, a national holiday on Election Day, and other democratic reforms. Most of all, “if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.
Just because Obama says it doesn’t mean the rest of the party will agree. But Obama sees his role in the present moment as guiding a consensus among Democrats, not picking fights. He wouldn’t have taken those positions if he didn’t think they were viable as priorities with the party establishment. And the framing around Lewis was exactly right, underscoring that there can be no meaningful “reckoning” on race in America without reckoning with the way American institutions embed racial inequity in representation.
Structural reforms designed to advance political equality are also a viable legislative agenda in terms of public opinion. Civis Analytics, a top Democratic polling firm, tested a wide range of reform ideas complete with partisan framing to try to determine those popular enough to move forward on. They found that DC and Puerto Rico statehood, automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, reenfranchising ex-felons, requiring the use of independent redistricting commissions, and blocking corporate campaign contributions are all above water with the public. To get any of that done, Democrats would need to first secure a majority in the Senate and then end the filibuster.
Busting the filibuster and using a newly unleashed majority to uncork several major changes to the structure of American politics would be a shocking turn of events. Pressure will be intense after the madness of the Trump years to declare that things are “back to normal” and to avoid taking actions that the GOP will easily agree to oppose. But Democrats should consider how frequently and somberly they’ve intoned that the future of American democracy is at stake. The fact is that an undemocratic system doesn’t go away just because Democrats win one time.
If Republicans want to make their ability to obstruct the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2021 their hill to die on, let’ em — it’s right on the merits and it’s good politics.