Joe Biden Talks Down Democracy

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“We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole. Since the Civil War.” The president of the United States, a man long known for hyperbole, doth protest too much. Biden’s speech Tuesday at the National Constitution Center yet again invoked the January 6 riot at the Capitol, but his theme was that new voting and election laws passed by Republican state legislatures are a “21st century Jim Crow assault” on voting rights. This is irresponsible and dishonest; worse, it is dangerous.

As we have noted on many occasions in recent years, it is not “voter suppression,” racist, or a return of Jim Crow to implement popular, common-sense rules for the fair, orderly, and honest conduct of American elections, and the Democrats’ addiction to apocalyptic rhetoric on the topic is detached from reality and threatens to make Americans unduly mistrustful of their democratic system. It is entirely reasonable to establish and maintain updated lists of registered voters and require some form of identification to confirm that voters are the people registered. It is entirely reasonable to require voters to submit their ballots on time and to the correct location. It is entirely reasonable to secure the secret ballot and maintain space around the casting of votes to protect voters from electioneering and intimidation. And it is entirely reasonable for governments to periodically adjust the locations and methods of voting to balance voter convenience with public expense and security.

We do not agree with every proposal that Republicans have made in every state. As the president himself noted, however, there have been over 400 of these in 2021 alone and a great many have not been enacted into law. Most of those that made it into legislation have reflected reasonable choices, and if they impose some modest inconvenience on voters, that is the nature of any system that has rules. Lacking legitimate grievances, Biden has to invent them.

One of the few specifics offered in his speech was the claim that, “in Texas . . . [the] Republican-led state legislature wants to allow partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters and imperil impartial poll workers.” The Texas law does no such thing; indeed, the current draft of the bill requires poll watchers to take an oath “that I will not disrupt the voting process or harass voters in the discharge of my duties.”

Comparisons of these bills to the brutality of Jim Crow are embarrassing coming from Democrats too young to remember that era. They are obscene coming from Joe Biden, who not only remembers the Jim Crow-era South, but sat in the Senate with many of its Democratic leaders, considered them friends, pandered to their supporters, gave encomia at their retirements and eulogies at their funerals, and speaks with the warmth of them to this day.

Biden is not so effusive about democracy when it means honoring the will of the people.

Democratic legislators in Texas have fled the state — a juvenile stunt that has been too commonly used by state legislators of both parties — rather than allow the duly elected legislature to function. They have done so on the basis of the usual overwrought claims about the Texas election bill. Biden has publicly supported these legislators, and Kamala Harris has met with them, indicating for the umpteenth time that anti-majoritarian tools (such as, until recent months, the filibuster) are fine with Democrats when Democrats are the ones who get to use them.

Most worryingly, Biden’s speech appears to be laying the groundwork to undermine public confidence in the 2022 and 2024 elections in the event that they do not turn out as well for Democrats as did the 2020 election. “We’re going to face another test in 2022,” warned Biden, “a new wave of unprecedented voter suppression, and raw and sustained election subversion.” Which we will doubtless hear repeated a lot if voters once again give Republicans control of one or both houses of Congress. Biden is offering cover for more Democrats to take the Stacey Abrams route and reject the legitimacy of election losses. This is bad for the health of a democracy.

The real shame of Democrats’ monomaniacal opposition to reasonable voting and election laws is that there ought to be room for bipartisan agreement on the other threat that Biden claims to be worried about: state legislatures, state elections officials, Congress, and/or angry mobs taking steps to overrule the vote counts. We were consistently critical of Donald Trump’s efforts on this front in 2020, and we cheered the many Republican officials who refused to play along. It would be prudent to strengthen the nation’s defenses against a repeat by either party in 2022, 2024, or beyond. But doing so would require lowering the rhetorical temperature, focusing on forward-looking reforms rather than waving the bloody shirt of January 6 for partisan gain, and decoupling the issue from Democrats’ wish list on voting procedures. Biden’s speech landed him foursquare against any of those steps in an address impressive only for its demagoguery and dishonesty. We can only conclude that he prefers reliving past controversies to avoiding future ones.