The Limits of Federal Voting Rights Reform

Voting rights are under attack, both by Republican state legislature and by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court. Given Congress’s rejection of voting reforms in January 2022, Didi Kuo and I argue, in our new article, that it is time to reconsider strategies for democracy reform. Our argument, however, is not just strategic. To suggest that reformers need to choose between legislative efforts to secure voting rights and political organizing through parties is obviously a false dichotomy. But it is also the case that too often federal voting rights legislation is presented as a panacea to our democratic ills without sufficient consideration of its limitations as a reform strategy.

First, it is not clear that the sweeping federal reforms that have been proposed would pass constitutional muster. The Supreme Court has reduced the scope of both federal voting rights and federal oversight over voting rights—and, thereby, the extent of voting rights violations by states. There is also a high likelihood that if pushed the Supreme Court would have extended its federalism concerns to its Elections Clause jurisprudence.

Second, reforms to election procedures are not a panacea. Voters should have easier access to the ballot. Redistricting should be less partisan, and there should be greater transparency in campaign financing. But creating uniform federal standards for election administration and increasing voting access would not necessarily reduce polarization or make it easier for congressional majorities to pass policies. Several procedural reforms (eliminating the filibuster or mandating rank-choice voting in party primaries) might have more traction restoring confidence in Congress, but those are rarely part of the package of election reforms and were not part of the package rejected in 2022.

By comparison, political participation as evident from recent high-turnout and civically engaged elections have yielded important policy results at the state and local levels. In 2020, Floridians passed a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars. Tellingly, more Floridians voted to raise the minimum wage than in the presidential election. The stories of ballot initiatives in 2018 and 2022 are similar. Bipartisan majorities have also led to the direct enactment of a variety of election reforms, from Kentucky (which made early in-person voting permanent) to Vermont (which mandated absentee ballots for all registered voters).

Our argument, however, is not that we should have more direct democracy. Our argument is that:

“Mass participation would be more consistently effective . . . if it were channeled through participatory party organizations. Associational parties, as we call them, can do even better than idiosyncratic mass partici­pation to promote the demands of voters and begin to restore the fraying trust between citizens and government in the United States.”

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