US President Joe Biden has made electoral reform one of the most important goals of his presidency. Problem: In the Senate, he also needs the support of some Republicans — and they are adamantly opposed. To break the resistance, Biden and many Democrats want to change the voting rules. A delicate task, explains SRF correspondent Matthias Kundig.
US reporter, SRF
Matthias Kundig has been reporting from Miami for the USA, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean since Fall 2018. Prior to that he was a Producer on “Echo der Zeit” and Special Correspondent in Egypt. Kundig studied history and political science at the University of Bern.
SRF News: On actual electoral reform: What is the problem if different countries have different electoral laws?
Matthias Kundig: This means that in some places it’s hard to vote at all, especially for minorities like blacks and indigenous people, but also for the lower social classes. Because Election Day in the United States is always a Tuesday, i.e. a business day, under the Constitution. This is a significant obstacle for many hourly wage earners. Because in only a few liberal states could people vote by mail or cast their votes in earlier days. In some conservative states, a special permit must first be obtained and a doctor’s certificate or confirmation from an employer is required.
So there are countries that have significant obstacles that prevent people from benefiting from their basic democratic rights. In Republican-led states, these obstacles have increased over the past year.
Biden would like to present these national standards
For example, voting by mail or early calling should be possible everywhere. It should also become easier than ever to register for elections. In addition, it should no longer be possible for any party to draw constituencies so that it would certainly have a seat there. The so-called ‘constituency manipulation’ must be abolished and in future independent commissions will define constituencies. Finally, states must submit amendments to their electoral laws to the national legislature to ensure that new regulations do not harm certain groups of voters.
The project has been stuck in the Senate for months, where Republicans have a stalled minority. With the so-called stalling, they absolutely forbid discussion of electoral law reform. What is the idea behind this disruption?
The original intent was that the bills would be widely supported and that the majority party would not be able to consistently ignore the opposition’s concerns. This also worked for decades when there was still a willingness to cooperate in the US Congress and moderates in both parties had much more weight. The disable tool has rarely been used for a long time.
But in the past twenty years, polarization has sharply increased, factional pressure has become more significant and moderates have lost weight. That is why both parties–when in the role of opposition–continually begin to block every project of the majority party with procrastination, to nip it in the bud. As a result, Congress can no longer even address urgent reform projects. So it’s pretty much a dead end in Congress.
Now, can Democrats cancel or suspend this stall for electoral reform?
They can, because it takes a simple majority of 51 votes just to change the rules in the Senate — for example, to stipulate that stalling does not apply to electoral reforms. But for now, two Democrats are blocking any changes to the disruption rules: Joe Manchin and Kirsten Senema. They warn against breaking this taboo and fear that the exemption will inevitably lead to the complete abolition of procrastination.
Republicans Warn of ‘Nuclear Winter’
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warns in stark terms against easing or eliminating disruption: Democrats will “open the door to hell” and “nuclear winter” will threaten the Senate. Concretely, McConnell threatens that Republicans will use every means at their disposal, such as countless additional procedural votes or endless additional motions, to paralyze parliamentary processes. “But at the moment it doesn’t look like there will be a change in the disruption rules any time soon,” Kondig concludes. “Because the Democrats lack the votes to change the rule.”
This would allow Democrats to push all of their bills by a simple majority — but once Republicans regain a majority, they can repeal all of those laws again. This leads to instability and legal uncertainty.
The conversation was conducted by Simon Holliger.
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