The decision that will define Democrats for a decade

For all these reasons, many experts in voting and elections believe that the choices Democrats make regarding their democracy and voting-reform agenda represent a fundamental crossroads in American politics. Passage of these laws wouldn’t guarantee a sustained period of Democratic political dominance: In both 2016 and 2020, Trump’s incredible mobilization of infrequent white voters demonstrated that Republicans could compete in a high-turnout environment. But failing to pass the laws might ensure the reverse: a lasting Democratic disadvantage. The absence of national election standards would further entrench the current system, which has allowed Republicans to frequently control Congress, the White House, or both during the past three decades, even though Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections.

If the Democrats don’t pass H.R. 1 and the new VRA, “there is a very good chance that America will wind up under an extended period of minority rule in which the party that represents 45–46 percent of the country can have a majority of power in Washington,” Drutman told me. “Which is not only fundamentally unfair, but it contravenes any set of democratic values and creates a sense of fundamental illegitimacy [that] is deeply destabilizing for a democracy.”

Merkley, the principal sponsor of the Senate companion bill, is no less emphatic. Especially with Trump’s efforts to subvert the election, the American vision of representative government has “slid over the cliff, and [it’s as if] we caught a root, and we are just holding on by our fingertips,” he told me. “We must find a way to pass this bill. It is our responsibility in our majority … to defend citizens’ rights to participate in our democracy. There is no other acceptable outcome.”