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Mayors aim to restore faith in elections at bipartisan conference

The conference headliners emphasized the leading role of local governments in elections as partisan gridlock in Congress has impeded reforms at the national level.

HOUSTON (CN) — Moved by a raft of legislation meant to diminish turnout at the ballot box, a bipartisan group of U.S. mayors laid out a goal Tuesday of making voting in America as easy as getting a glass of water.

“It’s about voting, period. … When the basic question of voting comes up, it’s not about Democrat or Republican. It’s about the fact that you’re a United States citizen,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Tuesday at the National Nonpartisan Conversation on Voting Rights. “We’re not supporting any initiative or any candidate. It’s about voting.”

Backed by the National League of Cities, a group comprising leaders from 2,700 U.S. municipalities, Hancock launched the conference last year to counter what he saw as an alarming trend: In 2021’s legislative sessions, more than 400 bills were introduced in 49 states to restrict voter access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Many of them passed in Republican-led states and statehouse efforts to curtail voting have continued this year.

Hancock said he believes voting is an obligation, not a right, because his Black ancestors marched, bled and died for the right to vote.

 “It is our foundational value and anything that impedes our full exercise thereof needs to be obliterated as fast as possible,” said the three-term Denver mayor.

Municipal, faith and business leaders joined with the heads of LGBTQ, youth voting and disability rights organizations, sharing ideas on how to increase voter registration, education and turnout in panel discussions for the three-day conference, with many emphasizing the leading role of local government as partisan gridlock in Congress has impeded reforms at the national level.

Headlining the event are three Democratic mayors: Hancock, Sylvester Turner of Houston and Regina Romero of Tucson, Arizona. Beside them stand three Republican mayors: David Holt of Oklahoma City, John Giles of Mesa, Arizona, and Acquanetta Warren of Fontana, California.

Warren said she came to learn ways to increase voter turnout from her peers.

“Best practices are something that every local person always looks at,” she said Tuesday at a press conference touting the gathering.

“Why reinvent the wheel when you can steal from great mayors right here? So these types of discussions become best practices and before you know it, the entire nation is on one page,” she added.

Warren might have oversold the prospects for national unity, as the conference takes place at a time of deep distrust in U.S. elections. Polls show about two-thirds of Republican voters — influenced by former President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories — do not believe that Joe Biden legitimately defeated Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Despite their professed wariness of the system, many of Trump’s acolytes are running for office and have prevailed in primary elections. In this year’s midterms, 60% of American voters will have an election denier running for Congress or a statewide office on their ballots, reports the statistical analysis news site FiveThirtyEight.

Expressing puzzlement at how U.S. elections became so partisan, Turner, the conference host, noted that two Texans from opposing parties had a hand in the country’s landmark voting legislation: President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Democrat, convinced Congress in 1965 to pass the Voting Rights Act, and George W. Bush, a Republican, signed a bill reauthorizing the act in 2006.

Though Trump’s effect on the electorate loomed large over the conference, none of the speakers said his name Tuesday.

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers avoided saying it even as he described Trump contacting him after Biden won the Grand Canyon State by around 10,000 votes in the 2020 election.

Bowers said he got a call from “the president and Rudy” Giuliani, then Trump’s attorney, who together asked him to convene an Arizona House hearing for lawmakers to hear evidence of voter fraud and to back Trump’s efforts to replace the state’s Electoral College electors so they would support him instead of Biden.


“I said, ‘No, I’ve seen the circus. I’m not going to put the [Arizona] House of Representatives through the circus,” Bowers recounted. “They said, ‘Yeah. But you had 6,000 dead people vote and 200,000 illegals and 20,000 people who don’t even live in Arizona.’ I said, ‘Do you have the proof?’ I said, ‘Put the proof, the names of those individuals. And it would help if you told me how they voted.’”

Justin Levitt, Biden’s White House Senior Policy Adviser for Democracy and Voting Rights, said despite the ongoing fallout of the 2020 election — with some experts voicing concerns that Republicans will not accept the results of upcoming elections — in some respects the nation is on the right track.

“In some ways we are getting it right and I don’t want to lose the good news,” he said. “There have been historic firsts in every one of the last few years, including glass ceiling after glass ceiling broke in mayor’s offices for things like gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

“And in 2020, in the midst of a raging pandemic … more Americans voted than ever before,” he added.

Though proposed legislation, backed by President Biden, to create federal guidelines for mail-in and early voting and end partisan gerrymandering died in the U.S. Senate early this year, Levitt said Biden has prioritized restoring confidence in elections by signing a budget this year that allocates $10 billion over 10 years to local election officials, the “largest commitment for federal funding of elections in history.”

“Because we know that local governments that run our elections … have struggled to get the resources commensurate with the access and security voters expect and deserve,” Levitt said.

In addition to concerns about a growing trend of disgruntled voters threatening election officials, some speakers said they fear the Supreme Court will undermine elections, noting the court, in its 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, decided in 2013, found unconstitutional a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states and counties with a history of voter discrimination to get federal preclearance before making any changes to voting laws was unconstitutional.

In a panel titled “Legal Strategy for Voter Access,” Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a redistricting expert, said he believes the biggest threat to elections today is the Supreme Court.

There is a rich history of election shenanigans in the United States, Li explained.

 “And you’ve always counted on there being an honest broker who will kind of come in and say, ‘You know, that’s not really what we should be doing,’” he continued. “And unfortunately, this is a court that seems willing to do a lot of damage and a lot of damage on its shadow docket … without even fully hearing the case.”

Clarence Anthony, former mayor of South Bay, Florida, and CEO of the National League of Cities, noted that at the first iteration of the conference in 2021, attendees developed a “playbook for nonpartisan voter engagement” with 63 recommendations for city leaders.

Voting should be “as easy as getting a glass of water,” Anthony said. “That’s serious. So I want y’all to make sure that everybody in Texas gets a glass of water and they are able to get it easily. No matter what city, county, state it is. It should be just that easy.”

Around 300 people attended the conference, which concludes Wednesday.

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