In his Seattle Times column, Jesse Jackson levels an astounding claim—American democracy is under siege. This article is in the context of advocating for passage of the Democrats’ misnamed John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. I say “misnamed” the bill is not actually about voting rights, which are not in question. Regardless of the pros and cons of the details within the bill, no one is proposing to restrict or rescind anyone’s right to vote, as far as I can determine. So the inclusion of “voting rights” in the title is a red herring, and could more accurately be called an election reform bill.
Be that as it may, is Jackson peddling hyperbole? Or is there something to his breathtaking assertion?
Let me take a look. Here is my annotated review of Jackson’s article. After asserting that “Over the last 10 years, democracy has been in decline across the world,” Jackson writes:
This is an understatement: American democracy is under siege. Today we witness a concerted, systematic and unrelenting effort to undermine our democracy. The sacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and former President Donald Trump’s continuing effort to discredit the results of the 2020 presidential election that he lost are just one part of the offensive. The attack on democracy is supported by Republican politicians, donors and party organs both at state and national levels. It is reinforced by the partisan Republican appointed right-wing majority on the Supreme Court.
There is no question that Trump went fanatical on his fraudulent claim of “a stolen election.” And while it can’t be said that he incited the Capitol riot—I read his January 6 rally speech immediately preceding the attack, and it doesn’t rise to the level of direct incitement, so it’s protected First Amendment speech—he certainly didn’t do enough to stop it soon enough, despite constant pleas from his allies. But is this overhyped “attack on democracy” really widely supported in Republican circles? I don’t see it, although too many Republican politicians may hedge their comments so as not to alienate the too-high numbers of remaining Trump supporters (now called the MAGA movement). These Republicans are doing what politicians do, pander the “the base”—a nutty base which, unfortunately, occupies to large a swath within the GOP. The Democrats were just as panderous to their base in justifying and/or soft-pedaling the looters ravaging American cities during the so-called “racial justice protests” of 2020.
But the last sentence tells you where Jackson is really going. The “partisan Republican appointed right-wing majority on the Supreme Court” is justices nominated by duly elected American presidents and confirmed by a duly elected United States Senate. Where’s the “attack on Democracy”? Sounds like Jackson’s “attack on Democracy” is more like a camouflage for bitterness over election setbacks for his far Left reactionary political agenda. Jackson continues:
The campaign begins with the Big Lie that the election in 2020 was stolen — a lie that is repeated even though refuted by independent audits, by Republican judges, by Trump’s own attorney general and by Republican election officials. Despite this, a majority of Republican voters now believe that the 2020 election was stolen.
True enough, sadly. But note Jackson’s observed fact that Trump’s Big Lie is “refuted'' by Republican judges, by Trump’s own attorney general and by Republican election officials, not to mention that all states with Republican political control certified the election results in December. This directly contradicts his prior claim that Trump’s “attack on democracy is supported by Republican politicians, donors and party organs both at state and national levels.” Jackson goes on . . .
That lie then is used by Republican legislators to push legislative measures designed to make it harder to vote. They seek to limit mail-in ballots, reduce the days for early voting, cut the hours that polls are open, eliminate the number of places to vote, impose burdensome ID requirements and purge voting lists. By February, 253 bills were introduced in 43 states. And now Republican state legislatures in states from Arizona to Pennsylvania are seeking not simply to replace independent election officials with partisans but to empower legislatures to overturn elections if they don’t like the results.
So, should there be no limits on mail-in balloting, early voting days, hours that polls are open, number of polling places, and the length of time inactive voters should remain on state voting rolls? And are voter ID requirements really that “burdensome”? For whom? Anyone who has ever had to whip out their drivers license knows otherwise.
Through most of my voting life, which began in 1968, polls were open one day—Election Day—for a limited number of hours. Other than rare absentee ballots, usually reserved for service members, there was no mail-in balloting or early voting. Many of these features, including remote drop-off boxes, were instituted “on the fly” in 2020 as emergency pandemic measures. Most of these measures are now being made permanent through updated state election laws. In my lifetime, it’s never been easier to vote than now. Yet Jackson wants us to believe that Republicans are attacking the right to vote. A wide variety of experts have rejected the idea that the sweep of election law reforms would suppress voter turnout. Sarah Isgur and Chris Stirewalt explain:
Do Voting Laws Matter? Maybe Not: New academic research suggests that all this talk about laws that will result in voter suppression or increase turnout may be, well, academic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Niesse writes that “Academic research shows that voter ID laws have little to no effect on turnout” and that “one nationwide study found that expansions of absentee voting in some states in last year’s election didn’t alter turnout.” Taken together, these studies show that “almost all voters who want to vote will find a way to cast their ballots despite tougher ID requirements, limits on ballot drop boxes and a shorter early voting period before runoffs.” And, of course, if there’s no effect on turnout that also means there’s no discernible amount of fraud being prevented either.
Ilya Shapiro reported for the Washington Examiner concerning the much-trashed Georgia law:
The Washington Post gave Biden “ four Pinocchios” for his claim that [Georgia’s] SB 202 was “ Jim Crow in the 21st century” for limiting voting hours and to otherwise “deny the right to vote to countless voters.” That paper, not exactly a right‐wing house organ, reported that “experts say the net effect was to expand the opportunities to vote for most Georgians, not limit them,” MIT elections expert Charles Stewart III found.
Likewise, the New York Times noted that the Georgia law “will have little effect on overall turnout or on election outcomes.” It notes that “More broadly, . . . modest changes to voting convenience — like those in the Georgia law — have had little to no effect when other states have adopted them.”
You get the picture. This is just a sampling. The fact is, in no place in America is any state making it hard for any reasonably motivated person to cast his vote. They’re making it easier. “Voter suppression” is a conspiratorial lie: It’s just political hype.
The last claim, that “Arizona to Pennsylvania are seeking . . . to empower legislatures to overturn elections if they don’t like the results,” doesn’t hold up. Of course, it would be bad, very bad, if politicians could “overturn elections if they don’t like the results.” But that is just hysterical nonsense. There are constitutional checks and balances and legal barriers to such events. As Constitutional expert Walter Olson observes, No, State Legislatures Aren’t Going To Override The Popular Vote on Presidential Elector. While both the Constitution and federal law recognize state legislatures’ power to choose electors, states cannot simply overturn elections willy-nilly. They can step in only under extremely remote circumstances, such as an election that “failed” due to a natural disaster or terrorist attack. States could not alter “an election held as usual”: “Congress, armed with constitutional power to set uniform election rules,” Olson notes, would simply not allow it. So Jackson’s scare mongering about political partisans overturning election results is just that, scare mongering.
Jackson also complains that “in states where Republicans are in control, partisan redistricting committees are gerrymandering districts to ensure that Republicans can capture the majority of the state legislature and the congressional delegation.” This is a red herring. Partisan redistricting is rampant everywhere, including in Democrat-controlled states. New Jersey Democrats just completed their own version of partisan redistricting.* Redistricting is problematic in America, to be sure. And there is much debate over how to make the constitutionally mandated procedure less partisan. But partisan gerrymandering is bipartisan. Jackson is just being disingenuous, nothing more. And remember that “states where Republicans are in control” are states where voters put Republicans in control. Redistricting is the responsibility of the state legislatures, and state legislatures are filled with elected representatives. It seems that Jackson is for Democracy, except when Democracy doesn’t go his way.
Jackson voter suppression claims are just an appetizer for the main course. He expands his diatribe to an attack on free speech, a much more fundamental right than voting. “The effort” to suppress voting, he claims,:
is aided and abetted by the tong of right-wing Supreme Court justices. In a series of decisions, they have opened the floodgates to both corporate contributions and dark money — secret — contributions.
He’s referring, of course, to Citizens United and McCutcheon. In those decisions, the high court didn’t “open” any floodgates. It overturned prior laws that unconstitutionally restricted political contributions, and thus free speech, which belongs to all individuals whether acting alone or in groups, publicly or anonymously. Associations of individuals, be they corporations, unions, or political action committees, are free by right to spend money on political advocacy—a right derived from the inalienable rights of the individuals who make up those groups. And these associations have a right to keep their donor lists secret, based on the privacy rights of the individual donors. Statists want to force these identities into public exposure against their will, exposing them to intimidation, and in today’s rampant “cancel culture,” to firings, a backdoor attempt to silence private citizen speech. Anonymous political spending, referred to as “dark money” by the political class to imply something sinister, is and long has been a key way to keep politicians accountable to the people. Anonymous speech has a long history of use by those fearful of intimidation and violence or governmental reprisals. And courts have long defended anonymous speech rights, including SCOTUS’s 1958 NAACP v. Alabama. More fundamentally, anonymous speech is also an inalienable right of privacy. Associations of individuals, however that association is structured, have the same rights. The Left hates both, for obvious reasons: Politicians don’t like accountability. But a free country protects all forms of free speech. Indeed, a free country cannot survive if it doesn’t protect all forms of free speech.
Jackson’s attack on liberal democracy runs deeper than elections in another way. His antipathy to Americanism becomes clearer with this:
Will today’s reaction succeed? Democracy already faces institutional obstacles. The Senate — with every state given two senators — is structurally biased against states with urban areas and large populations. Republicans can capture a majority of the Senate with a minority of the national vote. The electoral college imposes that bias on the presidential election — as we saw when Trump was elected despite winning fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the Senate, the filibuster — requiring 60 votes to pass legislation — has been turned from an instrument rarely used (mostly by Southerners blocking civil rights legislation) to a routine tool to obstruct any progress.
Yes, the Senate is structured precisely to be “biased” against states with large populations. The structure of the Senate and the Electoral College are both critical planks in the Founders’ tyranny-thwarting separation of powers platform. But Jackson is an authoritarian democracy fundamentalist. Jackson, the alleged champion of “minority rights,” suddenly champions majoritarian dominance over the minorities by getting rid of the equal state apportionment of the Senate, the Electoral College, the Senate filibuster, and “Dark Money.” That is in keeping with Democratic Party history. The Democratic Party at its inception endorsed the idea that each state should decide whether or not to legalize slavery, by popular vote. Yes, majorities should be able to vote a minority into slavery, according to the original Democrats. That’s Democracy, properly understood. That’s why Jackson’s party is called the Democratic Party. True, no Democrats would endorse that particular view now. But Jackson and his ilk have not changed their fundamental stripes, believing that our individual rights should be at the mercy of the majority, rather than be inalienable and thus protected from majority rule. They still believe in unfettered majoritarianism, so any structure, like the Senate or Electoral College, that restrains electoral majorities, and by extension legislative majorities, is anathema.
Jackson’s hyperbole accelerates as his piece rolls on, even to the point of channeling the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision to explicitly charge that the GOP wants to return America to the dark days of separate-but-equal segregation—a shocking smear given the Left’s current neo-racist Woke “antiracism” terror crusade.
I could say more. But the picture by now is clear.
Jackson asserts that “American democracy itself is at risk.” But the democracy that Jackson wants to “save”—the absolute democracy of majoritarian rule over individual self-rule (inalienable individual rights)—has never been part of America’s philosophical foundation, reactionaries like Jackson and his Democratic Party notwithstanding. The foundation of America is individual rights to life, liberty, and property, not periodic votes. That’s what checks and balances, such as the “undemocratic” Senate and electoral college, are designed to secure.
There may be features of these election reform bills that are debatable. But Jackson cites none and offers no rational counter-arguments, just hysterical hyperbole. In Jesse Jackson, what we’re seeing is not someone defending the right to vote—which is not at risk—but a reactionary partisan hack who doesn’t like the democratic choices voters make when electing Republicans. Jackson sets up a straw man, that voting rights are in peril, to advance his real agenda—to sabotage American government structures in quest of unrestrained power. Under the guise of defending voting rights, Jackson smuggles in, not so subtly, an attack on liberty rights and the limited government that secures it. In the name of “American democracy,” Jackson seeks to dismantle Americanism.
* [Republicans have sued to overturn the redistricting plan, claiming it is rigged to “all but ensure Democratic domination of the congressional delegation for the next decade.”]
Citizens United and the Battle for Free Speech in America by Steve Simpson
The Strategic yet Self-Defeating Hyperbole of 'Democracy in Peril' Journalism by Matt Welch for Reason