The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Office of Communications spoke to Deuel Ross L’09, Lecturer in Law and Senior Counsel & Director of Professional Development at NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., about the November 2021 elections, the state of democracy in the U.S., and Republican gains in states like Virginia and New Jersey.
Office of Communications: Did the elections go smoothly?
Ross: I think no election goes perfectly smoothly. But, yes, the elections generally went smoothly. There weren’t widespread issues with people having difficulty voting.
Office of Communications: Given that the elections generally went smoothly, what does that say about the state of democracy in the United States?
Ross: One of the things to keep in mind, particularly with the Virginia elections and New Jersey too, is that Virginia and New Jersey have broadly expanded access to the right to vote. Virginia recently increased the number of early voting days, repealed the state’s voter photo ID law, and allowed people to use non-photo ID to vote. Virginia has gone a really long way to try to make voting as easy as possible. And New Jersey similarly offers a lot of voting options, including early voting.
But many states around the country lack even early voting, they lack no-excuse absentee voting, and they make it really difficult for people to vote.
So it’s hard to make broad statements about the state of American democracy, particularly given everything that’s happened in the last year or two with the pandemic and after the 2020 election and the efforts to discredit what was a valid election.
With all the attacks on election officials, the attacks on the democratic process, the failure to pass things like the For the People Act and the Voting Rights Amendment Act, American democracy is actually in a very vulnerable position right now.
I think the November 2 elections generally went smoothly because Virginia and New Jersey allowed broad access to the right to vote, but that American democracy on the whole right now is in a lot of danger.
Office of Communications: Can you elaborate on that — which states make it harder for people to vote?
Ross: A lot of the southern states have very restrictive voting laws. The state that I work in the most is Alabama. Alabama has no early voting. It has a very strict voter photo ID law. To vote absentee, you need to meet their very strict excuses, provide a copy of your photo ID, and get two witnesses to sign your absentee ballot.
And those are absentee voting rules that do not exist in most of the country and certainly don’t exist on top of each other.
Alabama is one example, but there are other states. South Carolina has pretty strict absentee-voting rules. Texas, Georgia, and Florida have recently cut back on their access to early voting and absentee voting in response to the former president’s lies about the election.
I singled out the southern states, but the Michigan legislature tried to enact a law that would have restricted access to absentee voting — but the governor vetoed it.
Office of Communications: Can you speak about the effects of the Trump presidency on democracy?
Ross: President Trump refused to do what has been done for 200 years — concede when he lost the election and do it in a way that is healthy for a modern democracy. That led to the insurrection at the Capitol, which resulted in several people’s deaths and disturbed the democratic process in a way that we haven’t seen since the 1800s.
I think those actions really placed a cloud over American democracy. We’re all still dealing with the consequences and still trying to figure out how to respond.
Office of Communications: Republicans gained traction in the Nov. 2 election — in the Virginia governor’s race and in New Jersey, where the Senate president was defeated by a basically unknown Republican truck driver, and the governor was almost ousted by a Republican. What do you think were the reasons for those gains?
Ross: What I see from the Republican gains is that oftentimes things like same-day registration, broad access to absentee voting, and broad access to early voting are looked at as like, “Oh, that’ll only benefit Democrats.”
But if you look at the 2020 election, where because of litigation, advocacy and changes in voting rules, it was a lot easier for everyone. And those changes led to a large increase in voting both for the Republican candidate [Donald Trump] and for the Democratic candidate [Joe Biden].
So the biggest takeaway I see from the 2021 elections in terms of election administration and voting rights is that the things that are pushed to make voting easier don’t necessarily benefit one party or the other. They benefit all voters — whether they’re Republicans or Democrats — and make it easier for them to select the candidates they want to lead their states, cities, or school boards.