Renewing consensus in democracy

Bipartisan legislation in Congress and state legislatures ranging from electoral reform to climate change shows democracy’s capacity to transcend partisan distrust.

Then-Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, officiate at a joint session of the House and Senate to count the Electoral College votes cast in the 2020 presidential election, at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.

On July 20, a bipartisan group of senators proposed reforms to an archaic election law that was used to justify last year’s attempt by a mob at the Capitol to overturn the 2020 presidential electoral vote count. A day earlier, the House passed a bill with strong bipartisan support to codify federal protections for gay and interracial marriage. Those measures followed the adoption last month of the first federal gun control law in a generation.

That legislative activity underscores the design of the U.S. Constitution to resolve national disputes through consensus. It also provides confirmation of a gradual shift toward civic renewal measured by a new index of political division over the past 40 years. While “disagreement, not unity, is the normal state of affairs in American public life,” researchers at Vanderbilt University note, “the path to a more unified country is not out of reach.”

The two election reform bills introduced in the Senate mark a significant step toward restoring public trust in democracy and its institutions. The proposals would clarify ambiguities in the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which former President Donald Trump and his supporters used to challenge the validity of the 2020 election results. They would vest governors with sole authority to appoint electors to the electoral college and raise the threshold for challenging a state’s election results in Congress to one-fifth of the members of each chamber. Currently one member of the House and Senate can require Congress to debate a state’s results.

The bills also stipulate that the vice president has no authority to reject a state’s slate of electors, and add safeguards to ensure that mail-in ballots are accurately processed by the U.S. Postal Service. Drafted by 16 senators (nine Republicans, seven Democrats), the reforms reflect an earnest attempt at “finding common ground on a matter that is so foundational to our democracy: faith in the system that selects our leaders,” said Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who helped shape the bills.

There have been sparks of progress in other areas, too.  A study published in March by the University of Colorado Boulder showed prolific bipartisan responses to climate change in many of the most divided state legislatures. According to the study, between 2015 and 2020, bipartisan-sponsored legislation promoting decarbonization strategies among businesses and financial incentives for shifting to renewable energies reflected that “elite polarization” on climate issues is abating.

At a time often described as the most divided point in American history since the Civil War, bipartisan proposals in Congress and state legislatures are proving the founding wisdom of entrusting critical public issues to the American people and their representatives.

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