OP-ED: Protecting voting isn't enough to save democracy

Scott Warren
The Fulcrum (TNS)
U.S. President Joe Biden gives a press conference after the NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Hoslet/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The right to vote, the bedrock of our country's democracy, is under attack. Predicated on former President Donald Trump's continued insistence that the election was stolen, Republicans have launched an unprecedented push to make it harder to vote under the veneer of election integrity. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 389 bills have been introduced in 48 states to restrict access to voting, and 14 states have already enacted laws that tighten the rules around casting ballots.

In response, more than 100 prominent scholars recently signed onto a statement declaring that democracy is "now at risk," and they called for urgent federal action, noting that several states are becoming "political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections."

President Joe Biden has enlisted Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the administration's efforts to protect voting rights. Democrats in Congress are waging an all-out campaign to pass the For the People Act (a comprehensive voting rights bill known as H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), which would restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court.

The reality, however, is that passing both bills is highly unlikely. And signing the bills into law would also be insufficient to actually save our democracy.

More than a summit needed: Biden clearly understands the crisis in democracy, remarking at his first press conference: "I predict to you, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake."

The administration's approach to the domestic and global crisis in democracy has been centered on focusing on voting rights and planning a "Democracy Summit," bringing together countries and civil society around the world dedicated to the pursuit of democracy.

Voting and a summit are not enough. On other issues, like the economy, infrastructure, racial inequality and climate change, the administration has launched bold efforts, allocating trillions of dollars of funding and passing transformational policies that may remake the fabric of American society for generations to come.

Biden should recognize the existential nature of the threat to democracy, and articulate and pursue a similarly bold democracy agenda. This agenda should focus on the hyper-local and the macro-global: promoting democracy at the most local levels of government, while also leading a global vaccine distribution plan that demonstrates the soft power of the American government at the international stage.

Protecting the right to vote is crucial. Republicans are pursuing regulations that are race-based and will disproportionately restrict access to people of color. But the crisis in democracy goes far beyond access to the ballot box.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index evaluates democracies around the world, measuring 60 indicators across five general categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. The United States currently ranks 25th out of 167 countries analyzed — marking it as a flawed democracy.

The crisis in democracy is not just an American problem. According to the index, less than 9 percent of the world's population currently lives in a "full democracy." More than a third of the world's population lives under authoritarian rule.

The China comparison: The fact that democracy is receding across the globe demonstrates the endemic nature of the problem: It goes far beyond any leader or political party. Individuals are increasingly distrustful of a system that they feel like has promised much, and offered little in return, especially as economic inequality increases across the world.

The fact that China, as an emerging power, has provided an alternate form of government is threatening. China's average GDP growth of 7.01 percent from 2013 to 2020 marks one of the world's highest, while its rank on the Democracy Index is one of the world's lowest. China's autocratic system is attempting to demonstrate that countries can build economic power without democracy.

In the wake of China's rise, Biden sees his role in restoring democracy as pursuing policies that will strengthen the economy and lessen inequality, proving, as he articulated in his speech to a joint session of Congress, that "democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people." He needs to go beyond delivering results and invest serious resources into the local aspects of democratic culture, and the global potential of American democratic power.

At the local level, studies have articulated that the increasing focus on the federal level furthers polarization and democratic dysfunction. Conversely, local cities and towns across the country have the potential to productively engage citizens in democratic engagement.

The city of Durham, North Carolina, has begun to implement an Equitable Community Engagement Blueprint, drafted in collaboration with community members, to authentically engage and involve community members in every step of the city's decision-making processes.

Detroit has formalized a system of community "block clubs," connecting the city to community groups, business owners, faith leaders, educators and everyday residents, which has proven vital for vaccine distribution.

The city of Seattle recently approved $1 million in spending to support the creation of a participatory budgeting process in the city. A recent bipartisan congressional effort has focused on a $1 billion fund for civics education in districts across the country.

These experiments are occurring across the country — the administration should highlight these efforts and allocate serious monetary resources to support and scale their implementation.

Globally, the Biden administration can and should continue to articulate a more forceful and ambitious comprehensive strategy to improve vaccine distribution. While the United States roars back, countries across the world, from India to Latin America, are experiencing the worst of the pandemic.

While the administration has backed a global waiver to intellectual property protections around COVID-19 vaccines and recently committed 500 million vaccine doses to the rest of the world, much more is needed. The U.S. needs to convince more democracies to give more vaccines and needs to ensure that countries can use intellectual property to create their own vaccines.

Indeed, this accelerated pace is still behind China's global vaccine distribution. To date, China claims it has sent "350 million doses of vaccines to the international community, including vaccine assistance to over 80 countries and vaccine exports to more than 40 countries."

Given the Biden-articulated choice between Chinese autocracy and U.S. democracy, countries may very well be persuaded by the Chinese model if they see them as better able to provide real results. If the U.S. is serious about showing that its model of democracy can work, it must demonstrate it can lead the world in ending the pandemic.

Ensuring that all Americans can vote is vital to a functioning democracy. But it is just one lever in ensuring that democracy can survive, and thrive. As the president has noted, the fate of democracy itself may be at stake. We should respond with that level of ambition.

— Scott Warren founded Generation Citizen, which engages young people in political activism to promote their civic education, and a visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which seeks to strengthen global democracy by improving civic engagement and inclusive dialogue.