Professors urge Congress to support the Freedom to Vote Act

Dec. 1, 2021, 8:20 p.m.

Ten Stanford professors and researchers are urging Congress to pass the sweeping voting rights bill S.2747, the Freedom to Vote Act, citing a democracy at “critical risk” due to election interference, partisan gerrymandering, dark money and voter suppression. 

The ten professors are among a group of around a hundred academics who signed a letter through the organization New America in support of the legislation. 

“American democracy is on life support,” Assistant Professor of Political Science Hakeem Jefferson, who signed the letter, said in an interview with The Daily. “We were compelled to write this letter in part because of how long it has taken for Democrats to pass meaningful voting rights legislation, despite the attacks we have seen across the country in various states against the right to vote.” 

Jefferson’s signature is joined by those of Professor of Political Economy Jonathan Bendor, Associate Professor of Political Science Adam Bonica, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute and Freeman Spogli Institute Larry Diamond, Professor of Political Science Anna Grzymala-Busse, Senior Research Scholar Didi Kuo, Professor of Political Science Margaret Levi, Professor of Political Science Terry Moe, Professor of History and Political Science Jack Rakove and Professor of Sociology and Psychology Rob Willer.

The Freedom to Vote Act, which was introduced in the Senate in mid-September, expands voter registration and voting access, establishes Election Day as a federal holiday and restores voting rights to felons who have served their sentences. It also creates a new criminal offense of conduct for election interference, sets forth provisions related to election security, outlines criteria for congressional redistricting and addresses campaign finance. 

The legislation is co-sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (D-ME), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) and supported by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).  

The academics wrote in their letter that the Freedom to Vote Act is “the most important piece of legislation to defend and strengthen American democracy since the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” and that failing to pass this legislation would have “grave consequences not only for our democracy but for political order, economic prosperity and the national security of the United States as well.” 

The bill includes many of the provisions that were included in H.R. 1, the For the People Act (FTPA), which passed the House in March but was stalled by Senate Republicans.  The Freedom to Vote Act also adds new safeguards to “protect the integrity of vote counting and ensure sound election administration,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice

“One of the most important aspects of the Freedom to Vote Act is that it establishes a federal floor for voting access,” Senior Research Scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law Didi Kuo said in an interview with The Daily. “If voters in all states are guaranteed early voting, no-excuse vote by mail, an election-day holiday and automatic voter registration, it makes it easier for Americans to cast a ballot.” According to Kuo, the bill would also bring the American election system in line with those of many other democracies. 

Another important aspect of the legislation, according to Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute Larry Diamond, is the bill’s focus on preventing the reversal or sabotage of election results, including the removal of election officials for partisan reasons. 

“The biggest and most imminent threat to the future of American democracy comes from the growing campaign of Republicans in many states to politicize and take control of election administration and certification in case they don’t like the results,” Diamond said. 

Other experts who signed the New America letter agreed that the largest obstacle to expanding voting rights is the Republican Party, with some citing racial tensions and the rise of white nationalism. 

“Republicans believe (correctly) that the expansion of voting rights to people of color works to their political disadvantage because these groups tend to vote heavily Democratic,” Professor of Political Science Terry Moe wrote. “Acting in their own self-interest, they have blocked efforts in Congress to expand voting rights, and they will continue to do that.

Jefferson echoed Moe’s view of the Republican Party, adding that the Party “is not advancing the goals of multi-racial democracy in this country. We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that these attacks on the right to vote, and the attempt of the Republican party to subvert the will of the American people, is all happening at a moment where white Americans are worried about maintaining political and societal power.”

For Jefferson, conversations about racial dominance and whiteness are inextricable from the current “crisis of American democracy” described in the letter. 

“This legislation comes at a moment of racial reckoning where there is potential for us to see white backlash, not just in violent activity against people of color, but in the halls of places of power, where elected officials are doing the bidding of a white constituency,” Jefferson said. 

Despite many experts agreeing that voting rights is a priority issue for strengthening American democracy, progress on this issue has been slow, especially since the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Why? 

According to Diamond, there are two simple reasons. 

First, a 60-vote majority is required to overcome the Senate filibuster and end debate in all cases except reconciliation bills and executive and judicial appointments.

Second, while Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said that he supports the Freedom to Vote Act, he has not yet indicated his willingness to lift the filibuster for this bill, which would allow it to pass with a simple majority. 

According to Diamond, over time, the Senate has gradually narrowed the filibuster. First, the Senate reduced the threshold for cloture (ending debate) from 67 to 60 votes and then more recently lifted it for executive appointments and federal judicial appointments below the Supreme Court. Finally, in 2017, the upper chamber lifted the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments.

“So I don’t see why bills pertaining to the defense of democracy should be held hostage to this antiquated provision.” 

If Senator Manchin agrees to lift the filibuster, the bill will pass and become law, Diamond added. “The support is there in the House, and he would be the 50th vote in the Senate, with VP Harris breaking the tie,” he said. 

Experts sounded the alarm on American democracy if the bill fails to pass. 

Jack Rakove, a professor of history and political science, said that he is a “big believer in the American constitutional experiment,” yet added that “it is getting more difficult with each passing day to avoid worrying about the dangers the republic is facing.” 

“We have reached the point where the fundamental tenet of democracy — the peaceful transfer of power in the aftermath of elections — has been placed in jeopardy by a rogue president who has become the strongman leader of a party that is taking the form of an authoritarian cult,” Rakove said.  

According to Moe, we are witnessing the devolution of democracy as we know it. 

“This is how democracies die, when one of the major parties stops defending democratic norms and bends the rules to protect their hold on power,” Moe said, referencing Republican leaders’ support for former President Trump’s “anti-democratic” behavior.  “The only way to save our democracy is by defeating the Republicans at the ballot box — but that is only possible through free and fair elections in which voting by everyone is encouraged, not suppressed.” 

Diamond added that the efforts included in the Freedom to Vote Act are critical for preventing violence and the demise of democracy.

“It’s not a question of whether we will have a Republican or Democratic president in 2025, but rather whether that president was chosen through a democratic process,” Diamond said. “The potential for a much worse and more violent controversy than on January 6 is very real if the bulk of officeholders in both parties do not embrace, enhance and respect democratic rules of the game.” 

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