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Centuries after our nation’s founding, it can feel like the American republic is promised to us; that the United States will always solve its problems through elections and sustain our time-honored tradition of peaceful transfers of power. But in reality, the United States is a 245-year-old experiment in self-government that defies historical norms defined by kings, dictators, and, more recently, presidents-for-life. We are an anomaly — and a fragile one at that.

History shows that our system is not guaranteed and democratic experiments can fail — rarely from external attack, almost always from the corrosion of the system from within. If we want to pass this democracy on to the next generation, we must actively defend and nurture it.

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Our nation is at a hinge of history — a moment in which the fate of our American experiment in government of, by, and for the people hangs in the balance. There has been a great deal of talk in recent months of a possible constitutional crisis in the 2022 or 2024 elections — but in reality, we do not have to wait that long. The crisis is already here, with two profoundly dangerous phenomena unfolding before our eyes.

First, a substantial proportion of our population has lost faith in our democratic system. Second, one of our great political parties has stoked that uncertainty in the hopes of securing short-term political victories at the expense of the long-term health of our democratic system.

The results are terrifying. A large share of citizens and a number of elected officials have embraced the claim that our last presidential election was fraudulent and that our president is illegitimate. They have decided that, in the name of “election integrity,” legislatures across the country must “fix” the results of future elections by enacting laws that limit the participation of a substantial number of voters.

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When I used to interact with the Maine Legislature, either as a private citizen or as governor, the first question from the committee chair about any change would be, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” In this case, one might ask: Is the problem really voter fraud, or is it election results the party in power in a particular state don’t like?

The answer is clear: There is no widespread voter fraud. In both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Donald Trump and his allies mounted significant efforts to produce credible evidence that widespread voter fraud exists, and they failed to find proof. Their claims have been rejected by dozens of judges (including some appointed by Trump), and searches and audits led by Trump loyalists have proved fruitless.

The only fraud here are the allegations themselves.

The claims may be bunk, but that doesn’t mean the dangers aren’t real. The laws being enacted in states across the country threaten to deprive many Americans of the right to vote — especially in communities of color that have been historically denied that right, through one tactic or another, for generations. This democratic backsliding would undermine the very idea of America by destroying the backbone of our democratic system: free and fair elections.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. Congress has the constitutional authority to change direction and protect the democratic process by enacting a set of basic guardrails to maintain the sacred right to vote. We must claim that role as the trustees of a tradition that goes back to Jefferson and Lincoln, carried on by Margaret Chase Smith, John McCain, and countless others. All were partisans to an extent, but all shared an overriding commitment to the idea that animates the American experiment. The idea that the people — all the people — are the ultimate arbiters of power.

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Now is the moment to reach beyond party, beyond self, to save and reinvigorate the sputtering flame of that idea. What good is winning an election or two if it comes at the expense of our most fundamental democratic values? That is why I supported the Freedom to Vote Act, which would defend access to early voting and ensure that partisan politics play no role in the counting of ballots, among other important provisions to ensure eligible voters are not disenfranchised. Unfortunately, even a debate on this legislation was blocked by every single Senate Republican. This issue is too important to go unaddressed, so I will continue to invite my Republican colleagues to come to the table in good faith and negotiate legislation to protect voter access and strengthen our electoral system against true threats, not Internet myths.

I want to negotiate a compromise, first and foremost. But absent that, I am open to pursuing structural reforms to the Senate in order to turn these priorities into law and to defend ballot access for all of our citizens. The stakes could not be higher.

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Angus King, an independent, is a US senator from Maine.