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What happens to voting rights in the US doesn’t stay in the US

The backlash against voting rights unleashed by Republicans since Jan. 5 — 440 bills in 49 states — may have taken some by surprise. But others are learning from it.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party has reshaped voter rolls, gerrymandered the electoral map, and taken control of the election ombudsman and audit authority.JOHANNA GERON/Associated Press

As the world remembers the shocking scenes from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, expect much of the global news coverage to follow a familiar script. From Britain to Japan, pundits will ask: Why do so many Americans still believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen? How can President Biden shore up faith in the political system and prevent such violence from happening again? And how might other authoritarians take their cue from Donald Trump this year and try to manipulate election results, from Brazil to the Philippines?

Expect less discussion of what happened the day before: on Jan. 5 in Georgia. A critical US Senate election, which flipped the state blue and handed Congress to the Democrats, offers equally important lessons for how to protect and revive democracies across the world.


Just before chaos descended on Washington, I was reporting on the historic victories of Georgia’s first Black senator, Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish senator from any Southern state since the 1880s. I wrote about how the highly sophisticated — but also authentic and community-led — democratic mobilization offered an inspiring model for political organizers everywhere. In 2016, 20 percent of the eligible population in the state was not registered to vote. In 2020, that figure was just 2 percent. This, surely, was a lesson for the world on how to engage voters and rebuild trust in broken politics.

Nothing of the scope or depth of the efforts led by former Georgia state representative Stacey Abrams Fair Fight, the New Georgia Project, Mijente, and countless other voting rights groups exists yet in Europe, for instance. But there are growing efforts to emulate their success. In the recent German elections, a group called Brand New Bundestag (explicitly modeled on Brand New Congress) helped deliver victory for three candidates — all people of color — in seats previously thought unwinnable. In the upcoming French elections, where the threat posed by the far right has been fueled by President Emmanuel Macron’s failure to deliver the “different” politics he promised, a new group called Tous Elus is mobilizing young people in socio-economically deprived municipalities not only to vote but also to run for office.


Many such groups explicitly draw both inspiration and tactics from the mass voter engagement campaigns in states like Georgia. Their efforts are nascent, and they understand that they are in a long game: requiring decades of funding, outreach and, critically, bottom-up organizing, led and run by people of and for the communities they serve.

They also are beginning to see from the United States just how fiercely their efforts might be resisted. The backlash against voting rights unleashed by Republicans since Jan. 5 — 440 bills in 49 states — may have taken some by surprise. But others are learning from it. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is poised to pass a controversial voter ID law, despite warnings from civil liberties groups that it would discriminate against voters from minority ethnic and working-class backgrounds. (Just as in the United States, there is no evidence that voter fraud is currently a widescale problem in Britain.)

Authoritarians across the world are picking up the rhetorical cues as well. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, a staunch Trump ally facing a tough reelection battle this year, has already cast doubt on the integrity of Brazil’s voting processes (Brazil has long used electronic voting) and has preemptively blamed any defeat he might suffer on voter fraud. He has made unambiguous threats of violence, stating last August: “I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, killed, or victory.”


Meanwhile, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, facing elections in the spring, has already reshaped voter rolls, gerrymandered the electoral map, and taken control of the election ombudsman and audit authority — just as Republicans in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania are now replacing county electoral officials with loyalists who continue to deny the 2020 election results. As the playwright Tom Stoppard once observed, it’s not the voting that makes a democracy, but the counting.

It’s about more than voting and counting, though. A healthy democracy needs a free press and a shared set of facts. America’s press may be far freer than, say, Hungary’s, where Fidesz loyalists have captured all the major outlets. But there is no shared set of facts. US tech giants have been allowed to amplify conspiracy theories and foment violence largely unchecked. This has consequences everywhere — from the “stop the steal” mobs on Capitol Hill to the genocidal killing sprees in Myanmar.

In the wake of Jan. 6, there is, finally, some bipartisan energy for action on big tech, though it’s unclear what shape it will take, and the Biden administration continues to lobby against new European laws to regulate tech platforms. Meanwhile the “year of action” commitments made in Biden’s much-vaunted global Summit for Democracy last month — aimed at shoring up democracy and human rights across the world — will ring hollow if his administration does not succeed in swiftly protecting democracy at home.


Jan. 5, then, is an anniversary that offers a potent symbol of hope to democracies across the world — and a foreshadowing of what can be lost if that progress is not defended and sustained. Accepting his win just hours before the storming of the US Capitol, Warnock said: “It’s dark right now, but morning comes. Let us rise up, greet the morning and meet the challenges of this moment. Together, we can do the necessary work and win the future for all of our children.”

Mary Fitzgerald is director of expression at the Open Society Foundations and former editor-in-chief of the global news site openDemocracy.