Quantifying politicians’ commitments to upholding democracy isn’t easy. Even defining “democracy” is complicated — scholars disagree on its exact definition — let alone trying to establish how closely politicians or parties adhere to democratic principles. There’s no ongoing survey of how strongly elected members of Congress believe in democratic principles, for instance, and it’s not clear what such a survey would even tell us, given that politicians (and their staffers) are often masters at spin. But just like aggregating politicians’ votes can tell us something about where they fall ideologically on economic or social policies, one thing we can do is look at how members of Congress vote when issues of democracy are brought to the floor.
Of course, the catch here is that matters of democracy are rarely brought for a floor vote. “Most aspects of democracy are not up for debate in Congress in any given year,” said Michael Coppedge, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and one of the principal investigators at Varieties of Democracy. That’s an important caveat because the comprehensiveness of such a metric is limited by what Congress actually votes on. “There’s a lot that’s taken for granted that’s essential to what democracy is,” Coppedge said. “Instead, what we get our votes on [are] skirmishes on the periphery of what democracy means.”
One more complication is that there is no single agreed-upon list of what are (or aren’t) issues of democracy. Never mind what the more-democratic position is on each issue.
Bearing all of that in mind, I’ve built two different metrics to help us understand a legislator’s stance on democracy. First is a minimalist definition of democracy, limited to basic requirements like free and, in theory, fair elections and other measures that help safeguard democracy. Second is a more expansive definition, which contains everything in the first category, but also includes bills that expand civil liberties and who has political power. That way, we can see where politicians converge on these two metrics — and where they differ.
First, the most bare-bones definition: “issues of electoral democracy.” Included in this definition are the most basic requirements of any functioning democracy, like free elections and freedom of the press. And while most of these issues typically don’t come up for congressional votes, some did this year — most notably, the counting of electoral votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona in the 2020 election, usually a ceremonial event that this year faced objections from members of Congress and coincided with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. Four other types of bills fall into this category: a bill that would have set up an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack; when that failed to pass the Senate, a bill to create a select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol; a bill to increase the independence of government oversight of the executive branch; and the second bill to impeach former President Donald Trump, as he was charged with inciting “an insurrection against the government of the United States.” We realize that bill was more political than the others in this category — and we did debate whether to include it — but ultimately we decided that being too political wasn’t a good reason for exclusion, especially as the bill did deal with a core democratic principle: the peaceful transfer of power in America’s elections. (For what it’s worth, including this vote did not meaningfully change the results.)
How politicians vote on these issues doesn’t just reflect the extent to which they back President Biden’s policies, which Genesis Brand tracks via its Biden Score metric. Though party lines are important here, this stripped-down metric of democracy still shows substantial variation — particularly among Republicans. On the other hand, Democrats are mostly clustered together in the upper-right hand corner.
Take Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse. All five of them opposed the objections to counting electoral votes in both Pennsylvania and Arizona and supported the National Commission to investigate Jan. 6 — all three of the pro-democracy bills the Senate voted on in this category, even though they differ quite a bit in the extent to which they support Biden’s agenda. Similarly, in the House, Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, Tom Reed, John Katko, Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney all voted largely in favor of the pro-democracy measures in front of the House, even though Cheney rarely votes with Biden otherwise.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can see which representatives have voted against both Biden and the bare-bones pro-democracy measures Congress has taken up. For instance, Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tommy Tuberville, Roger Marshall and Cindy Hyde-Smith have all voted against the democratic position every single time, even though Hyde-Smith tends to vote with Biden markedly more than the others.
But this bare-bones metric is, of course, a fairly narrow definition of what it means to live in a democracy, which is why I created a second metric that also includes bills that try to create a more expansive and inclusive democracy. Using legislative scorecards from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the government watchdog group Common Cause and the nonprofit research organization Vote Smart, I looked at all of the other bills that Congress brought to the floor this year that could also be considered key to a functioning democracy, in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned. Bills that fall into this second category include:
Interestingly, the overall picture doesn’t change that much when you look at this fuller set of bills — although partisan differences are somewhat starker. While the bare-bones metric had a few Republicans on par with Democrats, this is no longer the case: There are no Republicans who are more supportive than Democrats of the more expansive definition of democracy.
In the Senate, it’s still Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Sasse, and Cassidy that lead Republicans on this metric — supporting almost all of the bills that fall in this second metric. The notable exception is the For the People Act, which no Senate Republican voted in favor of. Meanwhile, we saw more movement in the House, which voted on more “small-d” democratic bills and whose democracy score increasingly correlated with the Biden score. However, there were still some Republicans who supported a majority of these more expansive democratic positions, such as Fitzpatrick, Reed, Katko and Kinzinger, even though most of them vote with Biden less than half of the time. Cheney, however, fell on this more expansive metric in large part because she didn’t support legislation like a bill to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, the For the People Act and the Washington, D.C. Admission Act.
And this brings us to an important point. As this more expansive definition of democracy shows, many of these issues have become polarized by party. That can make it hard to disentangle anti-democratic politics from partisan politics, according to Gretchen Helmke, a professor at the University of Rochester and one of the founders of Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists that monitors democracy and threats to it. H.R. 1, the For The People Act, is an instructive example: Democrats have pushed this bill as small-d democratic because it makes it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, but they also first introduced it in 2019 as a statement of what the party stood for, when it had no chance of passing a Republican-controlled Senate and White House. So have Republicans voted against this bill as part of a stance against voting rights, or have they opposed it because they worry it delivers Democrats a sweeping legislative victory? There is no one answer here. In nearly every bill we looked at in the fuller metric, it was very hard to separate the politics from the policy.
Of course, this metric is not based on a random subset of possible issues. Democrats, who currently control both houses of Congress, might be strategic in what they choose to move forward, political scientist Jake Grumbach noted. Grumbach, a professor of political science at the University of Washington and the author of a recent paper tracking the state of liberal democracy at the state level, cautioned that Democrats might want to avoid difficult decisions for their members by introducing bills that could divide the party, leading them to keep bills off the floor on which the party doesn’t agree — a form of selection bias that plagues all studies of congressional voting behavior. We should therefore be careful about drawing any conclusions about the liberal and illiberal tendencies of the elected officials in our sample. But to see where your representative or senators fall, check out the full set of scores for all legislators on this metric in the table below:
At this point, the core of democracy in the U.S. is not up for debate. “We’re fighting battles today over certain aspects of the democratic process, but not the core of it, for the most part,” Coppedge told me. But the fact that questions of democracy have become so clearly partisan is not good for the future of democracy. And given just how politically divided that fight has already become, it’s more important than ever to track how Congress votes on the matters of democracy that do make it to the floor.
Graphics by Ryan Best and Anna Wiederkehr.