This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
A conservative U.S. senator from one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation is suddenly eager to restore confidence in the integrity of our elections. Sen. Rob Portman (OH) is certain that both Democrats and Republicans will want to work together toward his solution.
His answer? “A bipartisan, blue ribbon panel to provide transparency into past election issues [and] recommend best practices for the states moving forward.”
With all due respect, Portman’s suggestion feels a little bit like British Petroleum proposing a commission after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to try and figure out why there were so many dead animals in the water.
There is an easier way forward. The senator’s party could simply stop undermining confidence in our elections by continually perpetuating baseless claims of voter fraud, and consistently working to make it more difficult to vote in state legislatures that his party controls.
It’s great that Portman wants to work toward change. After the violent insurrection by a pro-Donald Trump mob at the Capitol on January 6th that disrupted the official certification of the presidential election and resulted in at least five deaths, democracy needs as many Republican allies as it can get. The path forward, however, must begin by framing the problem honestly.
The U.S. doesn’t have an actual problem with confidence in our elections. We have a problem with Republican leaders and a conservative media ecosystem misleading their supporters and viewers with fact-free claims that elections they lose have been stolen from them. We also have a problem with lawmakers using these phony claims of “voter fraud” to justify new voting restrictions that always have the same bottom line: Making it more difficult for Democrats, people of color and young people to vote.
The legislators passing these new voting restrictions, meanwhile, often represent districts gerrymandered to ensure Republicans hold big majorities even when they win fewer votes.
None of this, of course, is news to Sen. Portman. He’s well aware, for example, that bellwether, competitive Ohio has returned a congressional delegation of 12 Republicans and four Democrats for the last decade, without a single incumbent ousted over all that time. He’s well aware that his state’s legislature has become so wildly uncompetitive that the average incumbent wins by 30 percent, and politicians feel so untouchable that the state house speaker was recently indicted on a bribery scheme so brazen it’s breathtaking.
Portman knows that President Trump already called for one commission on voter fraud, early in his term, convinced that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election. And he knows that commission disbanded without finding a single instance of fraud, let alone the millions of illegal votes Trump claimed.
He’s been around Washington long enough to know that Republicans spent years pressuring the Department of Justice to look into voter fraud during George W. Bush’s presidency, and that a five-year effort by the administration, according to the New York Times, “turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.”
He’s also almost certainly aware that Kris Kobach — the former Kansas secretary of state and a high-profile proponent of the voter fraud myth — got absolutely dressed down in federal court after failing to produce evidence to support his outlandish fraud allegations when defending Kansas’ discriminatory proof of citizenship voter registration requirement. A federal judge actually sanctioned him to hours of remedial work on basic rules of evidence, and the Supreme Court just last month rejected a bid to revive the Kansas law.
Indeed, Portman is such a veteran Washington hand that he’s surely aware of the bipartisan, blue-ribbon congressional hearings conducted by the House Judiciary Committee prior to the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2016. Those hearings, and the 14,000 page report produced by Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner (IL) and Democratic colleague Mel Watt (NC), documented in page after painful page how the real problem with our elections are brutal and racist efforts to suppress the vote, whether through precinct closures, redistricting schemes, annexation or modern-day poll taxes.
Portman’s not a member of the Insurrection Caucus. He voted to count the results from Pennsylvania and Arizona. But behind closed doors, he might even recognize that concern trolling over non-existent voter fraud was never even actually about fact-finding; rather, it served to undermine the perceived integrity of elections to justify discriminatory anti-voter laws, including strict photo ID requirements to vote, increased hurdles for voter registration drives, and so much more. And in the days after this insurrection, his side has continued to use these unproven claims of fraud during the 2020 election as an excuse to promote even more suppressive measures in Texas, Georgia and elsewhere.
There are, of course, almost too many additional examples to list. There’s the Trump administration’s manipulation of the decennial census, aggressive voter purges by Republican-held states, the appointment of Supreme Court justices that have waged a war on pro-voting legislation like the Voting Rights Act, and, as the cherry on top, Portman and his colleagues’ willful and inexplicable refusal to give states enough money to run elections safely during a pandemic. Had they done that, it’s entirely possible that the election results could have been known on Election Day, and all of these “stop the steal” lies wouldn’t have gotten oxygen in the first place.
America doesn’t need another commission to investigate “confidence.” We don’t need feigned naivete. Democrats could certainly use some help from Republicans who are as horrified and angry as the rest of us that our democracy has been so debased and who want to work together to fix it. Our nation could use Republican allies who understand that gerrymandering and rule-rigging helped create a House caucus in which a majority of Republicans voted against accepting free and fair election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Indeed, there are some serious non-partisan ideas already before Congress — whether the For The People Act, or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — that Portman might consider endorsing, or finally coming to the table in a productive spirit to improve. It would be a step in the right direction for reforms that make democracy better to be passed by Democrats and Republicans together, just as the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act did only 15 years ago.
We know what has been done to our democracy. We know how to fix it. We need Sen. Portman’s party to stop and to change. Then join us on the reforms we so desperately need to make sure this never happens again, together.
Adam Eichen is Executive Director of Equal Citizens and the co-author of “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want.”
David Daley is the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.”