by Tim Hickey, the 2019 Democratic Candidate for the VA House of Delegates in the 59th District.
“If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare. It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.”
In reflecting on Amanda Gorman’s historic words this past week, I began thinking about the work that lies ahead of us and especially “how we repair” our democracy. Like so many Americans, I am relieved and feel a sense of hope again now that we have President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and a Democratic Congress. I’m thankful not to have to immediately check the news in the morning to see what awful thing the President and his cronies did while I was sleeping. Ms. Gorman certainly reminds us of our country’s boundless potential.
But I am worried, too. I fear that if we don’t act with a sense of urgency to repair our democracy, we will continue to be held hostage by an increasingly extreme minority faction radicalized by misinformation and willing to disregard our democratic traditions in order to hold on to power. I see a path that we can take as a country to help avoid that fate, but I’m worried we won’t be brave enough to take it. Please join me in letting Senators Kaine and Warner know that we expect them to walk that path and to reassure them that we’ll have their backs when they do.
As it stands now, Democrats have won the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 Presidential elections, yet Republicans won 3 of those races and have now appointed ⅔ of our current Supreme Court. In November 2020, Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes and the Electoral College by 74 votes, but just 43,000 votes combined in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin separated us from a second term for Trump. Meanwhile, Democrats represent roughly 41.5 million more people in the Senate than do Republicans, yet the GOP holds exactly half the Senate seats. In that Senate, Republicans can stop most legislation from passing with just 41 votes, representing states with less than a fourth of the American population.
Our system should vindicate the will of the people. Instead, it perverts our will. It creates the illusion that we are split evenly and that our current Democratic majority is somehow narrow. Our split is not even. Our majority is not narrow. So why are we allowing this small fraction of our populace to exert such disproportionate control over our lives?
If your response is that “America is a republic, not a democracy,” then you’re displaying willful ignorance. America is a democratic republic , a nation of majority will with countermajoritarian checks. But we are fast becoming a nation of minority rule with some majoritarian checks. The extreme political right, a minority of this country, wields a potent counter-majoritarian arsenal: the Jim Crow filibuster, the un-democratic composition of our Senate, the skewed makeup of our broken Supreme Court, the antiquated and anti-democratic Electoral College, and discriminatory voter suppression techniques. These weapons render meaningful progress on health care, gun violence, the climate crisis, systemic racism, wealth inequality, and democracy reform dead on arrival. We have a narrow window of opportunity to start disarming them. We must do it.
Democrats like Senators Warner and Kaine promised the voters progress and have an obligation to deliver on that promise. Here are four steps we should urge them to take.
First, eliminate the filibuster. The filibuster was never a part of our Founding Fathers’ vision for this country and is not a part of our Constitution. A mere procedural tool, its usage grew from the 1920s to the 1960s when primarily Southern Senators invoked it to oppose civil rights legislation like anti-lynching bills, bills prohibiting poll taxes, and bills outlawing various forms of discrimination. Now, it acts as an albatross around the necks of Democratic Senators, preventing a whole host of progressive legislation. The clear majority of Americans favor policies like environmental protections to combat our climate crisis, common sense gun violence protections, universal health care coverage, protections of reproductive rights, and a living wage. And yet we allow less than a quarter of our population to block any meaningful action in our Congress to make these ideas a reality.
It’s no wonder Congress is wildly unpopular. They are functioning with handcuffs on. We must release those shackles and let our representatives do their job. Senator McConnell and his GOP colleagues have already shown us that they are more than happy to dispose of the filibuster when it suits their agenda, as they already did away with it for Supreme Court nominations. We should eliminate the remainder. As President Obama said about carrying on John Lewis’ legacy of protecting voting rights, “If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”
Second, both Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, through free and fair referenda, have expressed a desire to join the Union. We must admit them as states. The District of Columbia has 712,000 residents, which is more than Vermont and Wyoming and comparable to states like North Dakota. Puerto Rico has a population of roughly 2.86 million, more than 15 other states including Nebraska, West Virginia, and Idaho. Just as we admitted Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii during the previous century, it’s time to allow millions of our fellow Americans in D.C. and Puerto Rico to have a say in their governance.
Third, we must restore the legitimacy and fairness of the Supreme Court and federal judiciary. There is perhaps no more glaring example of abusive behavior by the radicalized right than their politicization of our federal judiciary. Their refusal to give a hearing to Merrick Garland in early 2016 crossed a red line. Senator McConnell effectively changed the number of Supreme Court Justices from 9 to 8. It sent a message to voters that Republicans would be willing to act in undemocratic ways to entrench minority rule. Their support for a President who abandoned any notion of good faith service to all Americans was a logical next step. The Senate GOP installing an extreme-right Justice onto the Supreme Court during the 2020 election was their final blow to the notion that they might act in good faith. The Court has become a politicized body that lacks the trust of the American public. Legislative proposals that could restore legitimacy to our courts include expanding the number of Justices considerably in a bipartisan fashion to make the Supreme Court more like an appellate circuit, implementing panels, enacting ethics reform, and imposing term limits. Repairing democracy must include restoring faith in the fairness and independence of the courts.
Fourth, we need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and nationwide automatic voter registration, as well as make Election Day a national holiday. If the past few months has made anything clear, it is that the radical right understands the reality that competing fairly in elections threatens their power. They repeatedly propagated the Big Lie that the results of the 2020 presidential election were somehow not clear and incited their followers to attack the Capitol. The fact is that voter fraud is astronomically rare, but for years the right has perpetuated lies about it in order to disenfranchise voters. Fair Fight, the organization founded by Stacy Abrams, outlined the “insidious design and pervasive impact of voter suppression” in Georgia after the 2018 elections there: 1.6 million voters had been purged from the voter rolls since 2010; 30,000 were forced to vote on a provisional ballot and many of those ended up not counting; and thousands of absentee ballot applications, particularly from voters of color, were lost or rejected. The reality is that voting in America is safe and secure. We must continue to protect and expand the vote and resist efforts to obstruct the exercise of this right.
This hill we climb is not insurmountable. Indeed, Virginia has shown that meaningful change is possible. In 2017, Democrats flipped 15 seats in our House of Delegates and handily swept our statewide elections. In 2019, we flipped the General Assembly and had successfully built a trifecta. So in 2020, Democrats were free to begin the vital work of repairing our democracy here in the Commonwealth, and they wasted no time. Virginia passed no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration while repealing Virginia’s discriminatory voter ID law and establishing Election Day as a state Holiday. This year, Delegates Price and Aird are co-patrons of the Virginia Voting Rights Act modeled after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Delegate Levine is sponsoring a bill to join the National Popular Vote Compact which could help remedy the current imbalance in the Electoral College. We can do nationally what we have done and continue to do here in the Commonwealth. Together, let’s continue to push forward to repair America.
 For instance, according to Pew Research polling of U.S. adults, 60% view climate change as a major threat to the U.S., 60% say gun laws should be stricter, 85% favor background checks for private and gun show sales, 63% say our government has the responsibility to provide health care coverage for all Americans, 61% favor legal abortion in most or all cases, 86% favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour (https://www.pewresearch.org/topics /) . According to Gallup polling of U.S. adults, 61% believe the U.S. government is doing too little to protect our environment, 57% believe laws covering firearms sales should be stricter, 69% when asked to think about mass shootings assign either a fair or great amount of blame to easy access to firearms in the U.S., 56% believe it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage, and 64% believe Roe v. Wade should stand. (https://news.gallup.com/poll/trends.asp x) .
 See, for example, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/reform-supreme-court/