The US House of Representatives just passed HR 1, a bill designed to remove the dagger that the US supreme court and the Republicans have plunged into the heart of American democracy. For years, the Republican party has exploited three ill-conceived court decisions that exposed citizens to extreme partisan gerrymandering, virtually untraceable billions funneled into political campaigns, and an array of voter suppression tactics. Each has compromised the viability of the United States by compromising the viability of democracy.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
As of late 2018, a poll showed that “half of Americans have either lost faith in democracy or never had faith in it to begin with”. Yet, a nation with a population convinced that its foundational system – democracy – does not have the ability to solve the challenges of climate change, unaffordable healthcare, staggering student loan debt, historic levels of wealth and income inequality, criminal justice reform, and rampant gun violence is a nation in crisis.
Five justices on the US supreme court were instrumental in creating this crisis. They carelessly removed the guardrails that had protected democracy from partisanship, greed, and racism. With the barriers lowered, the Republican party rushed in.
In 2004, after the census reduced by two the number of congressional seats in Pennsylvania, the court looked at the legislative redistricting work of the Republicans in the state, and, despite the egregious results, said there was nothing the courts could do about it. The Republican party had taken what was an 11-Republicans-to-10-Democrats balance and transformed that to 13-to-six. That new configuration obliterated the “one person, one vote” constitutional standard set in 1962 and 1964 by placing inordinate political strength in the sparsely populated rural areas in Pennsylvania and diminishing the representation for residents in the much larger cities. In the new map, Republican districts remained intact while those previously held by Democrats were sliced and diced. That sleight of hand allowed the Republican party, which was nearly 90% white, to make the political party a proxy for race, while avoiding the tag of racial gerrymandering, which would have drawn the highest level of judicial review, “strict scrutiny”, and would have had similar results. Under Republican redistricting, white people, who comprised 95% of the state’s rural population, were now endowed with overwhelming political power.
This was the extreme partisan gerrymandering that, according to Justice Antonin Scalia in Vieth v Jubelir, the court lacked any viable standard to identify and assess.
Ohio Republicans heard the message loud and clear. Following years of planning, after the 2010 election, they sequestered themselves in a hotel room with mapping consultants and created districts that guaranteed Republican dominance for a decade. Republicans consistently walked away with 75% of the Congressional seats despite earning only 51% to 59% of the votes in a series of statewide congressional elections. Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, and other states adopted similar strategies with similar results. Those efforts piled up an additional 16 to 26 unwarranted seats in Congress that helped thwart the will of the people on tax laws, the Affordable Care Act, and background checks for gun sales.
Democrats, to be clear, have gerrymandered as well. Yet, when New Jersey Democrats tried to implement an extreme partisan districting scheme in late 2018, a phalanx of engaged and outraged politicians and progressive citizens stopped that maneuver dead in its tracks. There is, however, no comparable viable force on the Republican side that can provide the same kind of check on policies that undermine democracy.
Thus, in 2010, in the Citizens United case – when the supreme court allowed corporations, not-for-profit groups, and labor unions to hide the full extent of their campaign contributions – it spelled disaster. By the time the 2016 election had rolled around, $1.4bn in dark money, an increase from $338m just eight years earlier, had funneled into the campaigns. Barack Obama had raised the alarm shortly after the court’s decision that Citizens United would provide an unhealthy opportunity for elections to “be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities”.
He was prescient.
In the 2016 campaign, apparently tens of millions came from foreign sources determined to have a say in who the next president would be. And, today, most Americans are convinced that Russia helped put Trump in the White House. His compromised ascension into the presidency means that there are questions over whether his announcements about troop withdrawals in Syria, disagreements with Nato and summits with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are driven by US national security interests or Russian ones. In addition, despite the stream of school shootings and massacres, outsized funding from the National Rifle Association, some of which may have also come from the Kremlin, appears to have kept gun safety laws locked down in the bowels of the legislature.
Nor can a democracy function when American citizens are systematically denied the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. In 2013, the US supreme court ignored voluminous evidence that since Ronald Reagan’s first term, states had tried more than 700 times to craft laws to block minorities from voting and were only stopped by the Department of Justice wielding the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
Yet, by ignoring one attempt after the next to disfranchise millions of American citizens, the supreme court, in Shelby County v Holder, gutted pre-clearance and unleashed a whirlwind of legislation that “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision”, according to federal judges. Republicans from North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia, and 30 other states, were virtually “giddy” about crafting racially discriminatory voter ID laws, closing polling stations in minority communities, and purging millions from voter rolls. In their more candid moments, the Republican stalwarts admitted that the point of their efforts was to keep African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics, as well as the poor and young adults, from voting.
The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, rightfully noted that the Republican party is “a party that says they don’t believe in democracy. The less democracy the better.” It’s not surprising, then, that Republicans have resorted to fearmongering and blasted HR 1 as a “power grab” and an attempt to flood the voting booths with “illegal immigrants”.
HR 1, however, with its provisions for ending extreme partisan gerrymandering, cleaning up campaign finance, and restoring the pre-clearance provision in the Voting Rights Act, is designed to restore some integrity to a democratic system that the supreme court and Republicans have severely wounded. Or, as LaTosha Brown, co-founder of BlackVotersMatter, asked in 2018, “Why is it a struggle for us to cast our damn vote?”
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor of African American studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. She is a Guardian US columnist