“The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government”
— Constitution of the United States, Article IV, Section 4
There are more than a few people, Utah Sen. Mike Lee among them, who read that bit of the Constitution as if the 13th word were capitalized.
Actually, in the version hand-written by the scribe of the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris, it was. Along with just about every other noun in the document. But there is no reason to suppose that the Founding Father from New York, the guy who came up with the “We the People” bit at the beginning, was referring to today’s Republican Party. Or that the party should enjoy some special privilege of holding power, even, or especially, when it couldn’t otherwise win an election.
What the passage means is not only that each state in the union should be what we now call a democracy (small “d”), but that it is also very much the business of the federal government to make sure of it. Add the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, and that little stroll taken by William Tecumseh Sherman through the state of Georgia, and you have an unquestioned ability of the federal government to decide just how democratic a state has to be to qualify as republican. (Or how republican ... )
Unquestioned until a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (The Voting Rights Act, companion to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was hammered through Congress by Lyndon Johnson. He is the Democratic president who Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, among others, pretends not to have heard of when they tweet the lie about the Democrats still being the party of slavery.)
It is obvious that @BurgessOwens has never heard of Lyndon Johnson. https://t.co/zreiMfZbKF— George Pyle (@DebateState) February 18, 2021
The For the People Act, approved by the House and now languishing before the Senate, only uses the word “Republican” twice. It’s capitalized both times. Once quoting the Constitution, with its original spellings, and once referring to the modern political party as among those to be treated equally when it comes to certain kinds of campaign donations.
So maybe Mike Lee was just a little bit off when he told Faux News the other day, “I disagree with every single word in HR1, including the words ‘but’ and ‘the.’ Everything about this bill is rotten to the core. It was written and held by the devil himself.”
There are a whole lot of words in the bill. But the point of it is to weigh in, as the federal government should, to guarantee the rights of all Americans to have full and easy access to the fundamental right of all citizens: the right to vote.
Lee’s vitriol follows from his party’s continued falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from The Former Guy. Stolen, by which they mean he was voted out in a free and fair election in which a record number of people — including a lot of Black and Latino people and Indigenous Americans, voting early and by mail and in large “Souls to the Polls” church groups that vote on Sunday — cast legal ballots.
That’s what Mike Lee hates so much.
That’s why Republican state lawmakers in Arizona and Georgia are trying so hard to change their voting laws to make sure they never have another fair election. They have reason to believe Republicans in those states will never win again if everybody gets to vote.
That’s what Mike Lee is worried about.
Others have pointed out the core of the For the People Act could have been written by the Utah Legislature. The one with a Republican super-majority. It calls for online registration, early voting, voting by mail, stuff Utah has totally regularized and has demonstrated that it works.
That’s not so bothersome for Lee and other Republicans, of course, because Utah is the reddest of red states. Here the process of welcoming more voters mostly means welcoming, and electing, more Republicans. Someday, demographic changes through a rising generation and a flow of immigrants seeking biotech jobs, university postings and the Greatest Snow on Earth may change that. If elections are still this open, the composition of the Legislature will change, too. But, rightly, not before.
There is a way the constitutional theory behind the For the People Act could backfire on the Democrats, and the democrats, who are proposing it. If we establish that the power to define a “republican form of government” ultimately belongs to Congress, there is always a risk that a Congress dominated by the Trumpofacists who encouraged and participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection might use that power to define a republican form of government the way some of the founders did: white, male landowers.
But not if we vote them out first.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, loves elections. And not just because of all the free pizza that appears in newspaper offices on election night.