Biden hosts global democracy summit as voting rights are attacked at home

The US is undergoing 'democratic backsliding', international institute for democracy warns

US President Joe Biden is this week hosting more than 100 world leaders at a “Summit for Democracy” aimed at countering attempts to undermine elected governments and slow the erosion of democratic norms.

But given the precarious state of America’s own democracy, which has come under renewed attacks in the months since the deadly January 6 assault on the Capitol, critics are questioning whether the US should be lecturing other nations.

“You can't have that summit in your own house while the house is on fire, and you just tend to ignore it,” said Matt Keller, vice president of Democracy 21, a US non-profit group campaigning for greater election integrity and fairness.

“That's a mistake.”

The summit on Thursday and Friday will focus on “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world”, the State Department said.

However, some contend the Biden administration isn't doing enough to counter a multi-fronted Republican push to enact new “voter integrity” laws in states they control, particularly in the South.

Introduced following former president Donald Trump’s debunked claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, these measures place restrictions on voting by mail, mandate new voter identity requirements and change voting hours.

Despite a lack of evidence and an overwhelming legal rejection of Mr Trump's claims, most Republicans now believe in what Democrats have called the “Big Lie” and say election security must be strengthened.

Critics worry the new laws disproportionately discourage city dwellers and people of colour — who tend to lean Democratic — from voting.

The Biden administration has remained relatively quiet as Senate Republicans block passage of a federal law — the “Freedom to Vote Act” — that seeks to counter state-level measures.

But Mr Biden should be making the issue a centrepiece of his messaging, Mr Keller told The National.

“If you don't address what's happening in the country, what's happened in the past year, [then] what's the future of this of this republic?” he said.

Other vagaries of America’s voting system, such as the Electoral College, which disproportionately awards votes to rural, conservative-leaning communities, also highlight shortcomings in the US system.

Of the last three Republican presidential victories, only one — George W Bush in 2004 — won with a majority of the popular vote.

The international perception of US democracy reached a new low following the 2020 presidential election, when events culminated in the Capitol riot during which Trump loyalists tried to overturn the election results.

“Countries throughout the world look to the US as an example of a strong democracy. The fact the peaceful transition of power did not occur … that’s pretty unprecedented,” Robert Alexander, a political science professor at Ohio Northern University, told The National.

“There's a lot of people that have a lot of concern in the United States about the state of democracy.”

In a report last month, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said the US was undergoing “democratic backsliding”.

“The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale,” the report noted.

Freedom House, a non-profit campaign group that speaks out against threats to democracy, said that over the past decade, the US has dropped from 94 to 83 in its “Freedom in the World” report.

Following the Capitol attack, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman lambasted the US, saying: “The events in Washington show that the US electoral process is archaic, does not meet modern standards and is prone to violations.”

In the months since, Republican politicians have largely backed Mr Trump’s claims of fraud.

Those who have spoken out, such as Liz Cheney, have been censured by their Republican colleagues. Mitt Romney, a senator form Utah who was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, was booed and called a “traitor” at this year’s Republican convention.

Still, some analysts see the Summit for Democracy as an important event for the US to host given the recent history.

"We’re in a good position to lead a summit on democracy because we have the experience of ebbs and flows. We’re not in a good position to hold ourselves out as a model, but we can certainly talk about the challenges that democracy faces," said Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, adding that he has "serious fears about the future of our democracy."

Mr Keller said that what happened after the 2020 election served as a “blueprint” for what could happen more effectively in 2024, assuming Mr Trump runs again.

The new state laws, combined with politically appointed election officials and local legislatures empowered to overturn results they disagree with, mean the Republican Party will be poised to achieve what it failed to do last year, he said.

“We see this slow-motion train wreck happening before our eyes,” he said.

Another American electoral quirk is so-called gerrymandering, where political parties manipulate voter boundaries. Both parties have done it, but critics say it is being weaponised more than ever to reduce congressional representation of Democratic-leaning communities.

On Monday, the US Department of Justice sued Texas over new redistricting maps, saying the plans discriminate against Latino and black communities.

With a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court, legal appeals are likely to favour Republican arguments.

Meanwhile, China and Russia, who have not been invited to Mr Biden’s summit, have criticised the event as being divisive.

The countries’ ambassadors to the US wrote an op-ed saying, “No country has the right to judge the world's vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick.”

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan said the US is plunging towards its greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

“The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024,” he wrote.

Updated: December 9th 2021, 4:33 PM