Earlier this week, Michelle Beckley, a member of the Texas House of Representatives, issued a rousing call-to-arms on social media: “My name is Michelle Beckley,” she tweeted. “I’m one of the brave Texas Democrats who came to DC to fight for voting rights in my state.”
Supporting voter rights is, of course, a noble cause — but does it really warrant Beckley’s description of herself as “brave”? What could be the cause of such hyperbole? The answer, I suspect, is that Beckley was one of several representatives who chartered a private jet and fled Texas on Monday for Washington DC to break the quorum needed in her state’s House of Representatives and stymie a Republican bill relating to future elections.
These Democrats complain that the bill will restrict voting rights by, among other things, introducing identification requirements and banning drive-through voting. For the time being, the two parties are in a stand-off. It is, however, a scenario which is being played up and down the country; Texas is merely one of a number of states where local Republicans are attempting to introduce voter identification laws.
On paper, this array of new bills might seem like perfectly reasonable demands. But for Democrats , the proposed measures are inherently racist because they will disproportionately affect people of colour. Indeed, President Biden himself went so far as to describe a recent election bill in Georgia as “an atrocity”, likening it to “Jim Crow in the 21st century”. He doubled down on his comparison in a speech earlier this month, in which he claimed: “The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It’s unrelenting. We’re going to challenge it vigorously.” He went on to describe the recent attempts to increase voter ID at the polls as “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War”.
These are extraordinary, not to say histrionic, claims to make. But to watch them playing out, accompanied with charades like Beckley’s flight from Texas, is to observe the deeply damaged state of American democracy. Such fragility is sadly endemic. One recent poll found that roughly a third of American voters believe that Biden is only President due to significant voter fraud. Likewise, a majority of Republican voters have repeatedly said that they believe that the election last November was unfairly won.
There is, of course, a caveat that needs to be added here, which is that while Donald Trump never proved that there had been enough voter fraud to sway the election, there certainly were a number of egregious cases played out publicly and able to be seen by millions of Americans.
But the important thing to keep in mind is that concerns about the integrity of American elections are not new. Indeed, it has become a habit in modern American democracy for the party that loses a particular election to complain about the crookedness of the system. Way back in 2006, the Democrat Senator for California Diane Feinstein told the Senate that “serious questions have arisen about the accuracy and reliability of new electronic voting machines, including concerns that they can be susceptible to fraud and computer hacking”.
And who could forget the grace and ease with which Hilary Clinton accepted her defeat in her fight for the Presidency in 2016? For five years she has continued to argue that the 2016 election was illegitimate. A month after losing, she told her party donors that the race had been stolen: “This is not just an attack on me and my campaign. This is an attack against our country. This is about the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation.”
Surely, then, if anything is able to unite the American Left and Right, it should be an attempt to uphold the integrity of the vote? Since both Democrats and Republicans have their own concerns about voter insecurity, why would they not be able to agree on measures to combat it?
A cynic might respond that neither party really cares about the corruption of the vote, so long as they win. Why does it matter if the system is open to internal or external manipulation if it brings about victory? But such a question forgets that an election is not just about a winner knowing that they have won, but about the losers knowing they have lost. As recent American elections have shown, when this doesn’t happen, the results can be toxic.
So why can they not agree on some reform of the vote, such as requiring voters having to show some proof of identity to go to the polls? The simple answer is that the current system has worked for the Democrats this time round, and they are happy for the system to stay corrupted so long as it rules in their favour.
As for the voting public, I doubt there are many in America who sincerely believe that being asked to prove your identity when performing a civic duty amounts to “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War”. After all, Americans are already required to prove their identity for a number of reasons, whether it’s hiring a car, ordering alcohol or buying a firearm.
For despite all the charged rhetoric, all the anachronistic analogies, requiring voter identification remains a simple requirement — one that, as it happens, is practised across Europe during elections. That America cannot unite around it — and even dismiss it as racist — is a tragedy. It is a move that would give millions of Americans more confidence in the legitimacy and accuracy of the democratic process. And looking at the embattled state of democracy in the US, nothing could be more urgent.