WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday will convene a two-day Summit for Democracy, leading dozens of nations in discussions intended to boost democratic institutions and stave off authoritarianism abroad.
But nearly a year after an armed group of insurrectionists attempted a violent takeover of the US Capitol, there remains serious alarm about ongoing threats to democracy in the United States, according to a dozen advocates, scholars of government, and current and former lawmakers from both parties.
The threats include the abiding distrust of the electoral system stoked by former president Donald Trump and his allies and a passel of new laws it has seeded that could make it harder for voters — especially people of color — to cast ballots and easier for partisans to gain more control over the system.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for anyone who cares about our democracy and free and fair elections in this country,” said Joanna Lydgate, chief executive of the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan group that pushes for fair elections.
In late November, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance called the United States a “backsliding democracy,” citing the attack on the Capitol and Trump’s questioning of the election results. Any doubt about what’s happening here could undermine US credibility as it tries to promote democracy around the world.
And, with the event taking place at a perilous moment for democracy in the host nation itself, some advocates are deeply frustrated President Biden has not done more to protect the system — and its voters — here at home.
“He’s not showing up for us in the same way we’ve shown up for him, and at the end of the day, we’re talking about a democracy summit?” said LaTosha Brown, the cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “In many ways, that feels like a slap in the face.”
Some of the advocates said Biden has not done enough to make voting rights and protecting democracy a top priority for his administration, which has focused its legislative efforts on economic stimulus and a pair of infrastructure and social spending bills. They want him to use the bully pulpit and throw his support behind proposals to change archaic Senate procedures that would allow Senate Democrats, if they can unite, to advance two voting rights bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, without Republican support.
“The president has a powerful platform from which to rally that cause, and there’s more he could be doing there,” said Ian Bassin, cofounder of the group Protect Democracy. “The White House may be underestimating the nature of the threat at home.”
Biden delivered a major speech on voting rights in July and has assigned Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House’s efforts on the issue. This week, a senior administration official who declined to be identified said Biden would be forthright about the challenges to democracy in the United States during the summit. On Wednesday the White House released a nearly 11,000-word fact sheet detailing its efforts to buttress American democracy. It called the two voting bills a top priority, although it did not explain how the administration would try to get them passed.
The administration has also sought to fight efforts to curb voting rights in court. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice sued Georgia over a restrictive voting law and just this week alleged that Texas’s new congressional map disenfranchises voters of color.
The US system of governance has long disenfranchised certain voters or parsed out power unequally. It is a country that allowed slavery, and that did not allow Black people and women to vote for long stretches of its history. Senate Democrats represent over 40 million more people than Senate Republicans, even though each party holds 50 seats in the chamber, and unelected Supreme Court justices shape policy and law for generations.
But experts say that deepening partisanship, the growth of political disinformation and an effort by Republicans to tilt the playing field their way have created another set of problems. “Our democracy is really under strain right now from a party that’s worried you can’t win an election that’s really inclusive,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Polling suggests that about one-third of Americans continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, which scholars say seriously undermines trust in democratic systems. It is also dangerous, because 39 percent of people who believe the election was stolen also believe “patriots” may have to resort to violence to save the country.
“Many in the Republican Party have been complicit in promoting or excusing the Big Lie,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who is on the board of a bipartisan democracy reform group called Issue One. “On this issue, silence or neutrality is not enough.”
State legislators around the country have seized on the stolen election trope to push new laws that make it harder to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 33 restrictive voting laws passed in 19 states this year, including Georgia, Florida, and Texas.
“I believe that our democracy is being tested in a way that it has not been in my lifetime,” said Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic caucus in Texas, who was among the lawmakers who flew to Washington last summer to implore lawmakers here to pass the federal voting bills.
Voting rights experts are concerned about another trend in state houses: proposals to change who has the power to administer elections, by, for example, giving partisan legislatures more power over elections or taking power away from nonpartisan officials.
“Seeing a kind of state legislature attack on election administration is not something that we’ve seen before,” said Liz Avore, of the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks election-related bills around the country. “That is something that we’re watching very closely going into 2022 and that is something we expect to see more of.”
Partisan gerrymandering has also created a fresh round of alarm among democracy experts. Both parties seek to draw congressional districts that benefit them when they can, a process that experts say will benefit more Republicans this cycle because they control more state houses.
Advocates are pointing to other local issues, such as an attempt by Wisconsin Republicans to take over the bipartisan commission that runs elections there, as well as an exodus of election workers and administrators nationwide who face a deluge of threats for simply doing their job.
“As we’re having a summit, how about we look inward and address what’s happening here first?” said Democratic state Representative Athena Salman of Arizona, where Republicans launched a baseless audit of the 2020 election results in the state’s most populous county, and GOP candidates for governor and secretary of state say they would not have certified the last election.