The crisis of democracy that has attended Donald Trump’s Presidency has visibly manifested itself in challenges to the free press, the judiciary, and the intelligence agencies, but among its more corrosive effects has been the corruption of basic mathematics. Since the 2016 election, Trump has periodically rage-tweeted about an alleged three million non-citizens whose ballots delivered the popular-vote majority to Hillary Clinton. His fulminations were a fanciful extension of the Republican Party’s concern, despite all evidence to the contrary, that American elections are riddled with voter fraud. The math does, however, support a different number—one that truthfully points to how American democracy is being undermined. Nearly two million fewer African-Americans voted in the 2016 election than did in 2012. That decline can be attributed, in part, to the fact that it was the first election since 2008 in which Barack Obama was not on the ballot and, in part, to an ambivalence toward Clinton among certain black communities. Civil-rights groups and members of the Congressional Black Caucus point to another factor as well: 2016 was the first Presidential election since the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which eviscerated sections of the Voting Rights Act. Suppressive tactics, some old, some new, ensued—among them, voter-roll purges; discriminatory voter-I.D. rules; fewer polling places and voting machines; and reductions in early-voting periods. After an election in which some two million Americans went missing, the Administration concluded that three million too many had shown up at the polls. (The equation here is: reality minus delusion equals three million.)
Last week, with these events in mind, a hearing on H.R. 1, the For the People Act, took place in the House of Representatives. Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, the new chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, referred to the bill, in his opening remarks, as “one of the boldest reform packages to be considered in the history of this body.” He added, “This sweeping legislation will clean up corruption in government, fight secret money in politics, and make it easier for American citizens across this great country to vote.” That statement was not partisan hyperbole. The bill is a broad, imaginative, and ambitious set of responses to the most pressing challenges facing American democracy, many of which preceded the 2016 election, but almost all of which were brought into sharper focus by it.
Implicit in the choice to take up an electoral-reform bill as the first act of the new Democratic majority in the House was the decision to confront not only these injustices but, more fundamentally, the forces that have allowed them to come into existence. The bill contains provisions to insure access to paper ballots, in order to verify the accuracy of voting results; to establish early voting in all states for federal elections; and to launch independent redistricting commissions, to address the problem of partisan gerrymandering.