Advocates, analysts and international observers have cast a spotlight on voting rights in the United States before President Joe Biden’s upcoming “Summit for Democracy”, saying the ambitious framing of the event should be matched by reforms at home.
The Biden administration has said the two-day, invitation-only virtual convention on Thursday and Friday will offer a “platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad”.
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The participants, who will include leaders of the world’s most influential democratic governments, as well as civil society and private sector figures, are expected to convene a year later to provide an update on their progress.
But the summit comes amid a slew of state laws restricting voting rights and as the Biden administration struggles to manage a year of election-related tumult, including a deadly riot at the US Capitol spurred by unproven voter fraud claims that continue to stoke distrust in the nation’s democratic institutions.
Amid the tumult, Biden’s move to position the US as the international leader in democracy promotion may sit awkwardly for some attendees, even among allies, said Bruce Jentleson, a professor at Duke University.
“Some countries will say, ‘Wait a second United States – who are you to make us accountable on democracy? Some of us have problems, but your problems are much worse than ours. Yours are challenging the fundamentals of your system, with restricting voting rights, political violence, death threats to not only prominent people but school board members and local elections officials,'” he told Al Jazeera.
“So where’s your credibility? That’s not just Chinese or Russian or Iranian propaganda; there’s real legitimacy to that criticism,” said Jentleson, who also served as a State Department official in the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Biden first announced plans for the meeting in December 2020, just weeks after he won the presidential elections and amid a wide-ranging effort by former President Donald Trump to overturn the results.
Trump claimed – without evidence – that widespread fraud and malfeasance marred the vote. On January 6, the Republican leader’s supporters stormed the US Capitol in an unprecedented attempt to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory.
While plans for the international meet initially signalled a distinct shift from Trump, Jentleson and other analysts have argued that such an exclusive gathering puts a misguided emphasis on divisive ideological differences at a time when global cooperation is sorely needed.
Critics have also said the platform lacks the teeth to ensure commitments are more than just empty promises, and that resources would be better served going towards regional bodies more equipped to promote reforms.
The guestlist has already raised eyebrows, as some observers questioned why governments with spotty human rights records have been included.
Meanwhile, while China has embarked on a public relations campaign to counter the summit, fuelled in no small part by Washington’s decision to invite self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory, other recent international criticism of the state of US democracy has been far less grounded in geopolitics.
In November, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Stockholm-based non-profit group, for the first time listed the US as a “backsliding democracy”, citing a “visible deterioration” that began in 2019.
It pointed to Trump’s questioning of the legitimacy of the presidential vote, as well as to state voting laws “disproportionately affecting minorities in a negative way” and increased polarisation fuelled by misinformation, as reasons for the US’s inclusion on the list.
Hours after the report was published, the United Nations special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, speaking at the end of the two-week mission to the US, described “almost a tyranny of the majority where the minority right to vote is being denied in many areas, in parts of the country”.
In particular, he decried Texas legislation redrawing the state’s congressional districts as “gerrymandering”, saying the maps diluted voting rights of ethnic minorities in favour of white people.
‘See the receipts domestically’
Advocates on the front line of election reform in the US say little progress has been made since Biden took office, while Trump’s misinformation campaign – dubbed “the Big Lie” by critics – continues to reverberate throughout some state governments.
In the last year, 19 states have passed laws advocates say will restrict voting access, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks US voting laws.
Supporters of such legislation, which in some cases would curtail mail-in voting, reduce the number of polling places, and require voter IDs, often cite fraud concerns – though experts say these are overblown or unfounded. Voting access advocates say the bills most adversely affect minorities, the elderly and disabled people.
Beyond those laws, researchers at the Brennan Center have documented an array of laws and procedures implemented in states across the US that inject more partisan influence into “who runs elections, who counts the votes, and how”.
Writing for the Just Security law website, Daniel Weiner and Lawrence Norden, the deputy director and director, respectively, of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center, also highlighted cadre of Trump allies who supported the ex-president’s election misinformation campaign and are running for key election posts in the states of Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona.
The duo applauded Biden for making “defense of democracy a focal point of his foreign policy”.
They added: “But it will not be lost on any of the participants that democratic values are under threat in the United States itself. Reversing this trend at home is critical to maintaining US leadership abroad.”
Still, the international stage may push the Biden administration to take bigger swings at home, noted Allison Riggs, co-executive director of the voting rights programme at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is among the groups challenging Texas’s redistricting.
Biden has slammed restrictive US state voting laws, saying they represent an “assault” on the country – and urged Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore portions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that outlawed blatantly discriminatory elections practices.
Biden’s Justice Department on Monday also announced that it was challenging the Texas voting maps, which it said adversely affects Black and Latino voters.
But advocates are urging the administration to go further. “Whatever sort of statements are made, promises are made, commitments are made on a global stage, we’ll want to ensure that that we see the receipts domestically,” Riggs told Al Jazeera.
While national elections in the US are administered by state and local officials and largely governed by policies and procedures set out by state governments and officials, voting reform advocates say pending federal oversight legislation could start to address some underlying issues.
In particular, they have called on Biden to oversee the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act, which would address partisan influence, set basic elections standards, target gerrymandering, and overhaul campaign financing, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
With Democrats holding only the slightest majority in the Senate, advocates have further upped the pressure on Biden to end the filibuster, a mechanism that allows 41 senators in the 100-member chamber to block a large portion of the legislation.
“You need to pass federal voting rights protections and you need to show a much stronger backbone to getting that done, rather than just saying: ‘Oh you know, the filibuster stands in the way. Game over,'” Riggs said.
“This is critical to defending democracy in our country, and it’s non-negotiable”.