The 2020 election and its aftermath tested the resilience of American democracy and the American people’s determination to keep it. The COVID-19 pandemic threw innumerable wrenches into the administration of elections and vital grassroots get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. As if threats posed by COVID-19 were not enough, Americans faced a barrage of misinformation about secure voting methods and baseless attacks on vote-counting procedures by politicians more interested in maintaining power illegitimately than in respecting the people’s will. On January 6, 2020, the already tumultuous election cycle reached a deadly conclusion when supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol seeking to halt certification of electoral college votes favoring President Joe Biden. But in the end, American democracy prevailed.
The coronavirus pandemic and rampant political assaults on democratic norms placed enormous strain on the nation’s electoral systems. Throughout the 2020 cycle, these stressors and other external factors threatened to upset fair elections and inflict permanent injury on the republic. Fortunately, these worst-case scenarios were avoided because of dedicated individuals on both sides of the aisle who made smart and principled policy choices, volunteered, and upheld the law so that American democracy could see another day. The big and small efforts made by people in the past year to protect U.S. democracy were heroic—and they are worth celebrating.
To ensure these accomplishments receive the recognition they deserve, the Biden-Harris administration should create a White House democracy heroes initiative that honors individuals demonstrating exemplary leadership and dedication to safeguarding U.S. democracy. The initiative would be similar to Champions of Change under the Obama administration, but it would be centered specifically on the promotion of democracy and free and fair elections.
The federal government has long seen value in showing veneration for those whose actions have benefitted society. Since 1963, U.S. presidents have awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to people making meritorious contributions to American security, world peace, or culture; the Medal of Honor has been awarded since 1863 to members of the armed forces. To be sure, there are some whose enormous sacrifices over the past year may rise to a level worthy of these medals, but they are seldom awarded. A democracy heroes initiative offers the White House an accessible mechanism through which it can celebrate those who pulled American democracy back from the brink during the 2020 election cycle and those who work daily to make democratic institutions fairer and more equitable. A democracy heroes initiative would also communicate clearly to members of the public and allies abroad that democratic ideals remain highly valued in American society and by the U.S. government.
Individuals who protect democracy deserve recognition
Despite everything, the 2020 election was administered successfully and securely. Record numbers of Americans turned out to vote and had their ballots counted as intended. Reckless efforts by some politicians to overturn popular vote counts were quashed, as were violent disruptions to vote-counting procedures. American democracy prevailed due to the tireless perseverance of government officials, policymakers, and everyday people who valiantly rose to meet threats posed by COVID-19, acts of authoritarianism, and insurrection.
Starting with the 2020 spring primaries, state and local officials worked alongside public health experts to develop strategies for ensuring voting accessibility while adhering to public health guidelines. Numerous governors and mayors used their emergency executive authority to establish new voting procedures to help Americans vote safely and effectively. State leaders took a stand against false claims about widespread fraud and attempts to undermine legitimate electoral outcomes. Nationwide, poll workers risked their health so that others could make their voices heard. And when poll worker shortages arose, organizations representing myriad interests launched countrywide recruitment efforts to guarantee polling places were staffed during voting periods.
For their part, election workers and officials responsible for counting and certifying vote totals never wavered in their commitment to truth despite facing vicious personal attacks or death threats. Meanwhile, security experts at all levels of government worked around the clock to prevent election interference by malign actors. When violent insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, Senate aides jumped quickly into action, ushering electoral votes to safety. And the bravery exhibited by officers such as Eugene Goodman—who led rioters away from the Senate chamber—helped keep federal lawmakers safe so that they could resume the certification process once the Capitol was secured.
A White House democracy heroes initiative would appropriately honor those who went above and beyond the ordinary course of duty to defend democratic integrity during the 2020 election cycle.
Beginning this year, the White House could host a ceremony during which guests of honor would be formally recognized by the president or vice president for their service to American democracy. Although the most obvious nominating authority would be state and local officials, nominations could be submitted by any member of the public. The White House would be empowered to also prepare its own list of potential recipients to account for instances when individuals who are especially deserving fail to be nominated. Nominees could represent a variety of backgrounds and professions. Examples of democracy heroes could include:
- Governors and mayors
- Chief state and local elections officers
- Elections personnel and volunteer poll workers
- Public health officials who advised on safe election protocols
- Community GOTV organizers
- Voter protection volunteers and advocates
- CEOs and celebrities leading poll worker recruitment efforts
- Election cybersecurity personnel
- Attorneys defending the fundamental right to vote
- Lawmakers championing free and fair elections
- Congressional personnel and select law enforcement officers who secured electoral votes and federal lawmakers during January’s insurrection
From among the lists of nominees, the White House would select a small subset of people for special acknowledgement. Ceremonies honoring democracy heroes could become a new White House tradition to be repeated following each federal election cycle. Governors and mayors could even launch their own initiatives to honor individuals demonstrating extraordinary commitment to advancing democracy at the state and local levels. Corporations and educational institutes could similarly recognize democracy-minded employees and students.
Restoring public faith and America’s reputation abroad
It is important for the Biden-Harris White House to make a strong showing that it values core democratic principles and acts of service. The nation is still reeling from former President Trump’s tenure in office, and public faith in democratic resiliency has been severely shaken.
During his time in office, President Trump used the federal government’s full might to undermine the fundamental right to vote and to attack free and fair elections. The disgraced White House voter fraud commission perpetuated dangerous lies about fraudulent voting and peddled discriminatory policies such as voter ID requirements. President Trump’s Department of Justice flip-flopped its position on important voting rights cases in support of voter suppression laws targeting voters of color and spread falsehoods about secure and reliable voting methods to cast doubt on fair election outcomes. Last summer, the Trump administration tried to corrupt the U.S. Postal Service in order to delay delivery of important election materials at a time when postal services were desperately needed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration even attempted to undermine accurate U.S. Census counts, which would compromise fair redistricting processes.
Additionally, the Trump era wreaked havoc on America’s pro-democracy reputation abroad and left U.S. allies questioning America’s commitment to democratic ideals. As president, Trump praised authoritarian regimes and refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s interference in U.S. elections. Trump and his allies’ refusal to concede the 2020 election threatened long-standing U.S. foreign policy priorities. And in January, allies watched in shock and horror as an American president unleashed a violent mob to disrupt election certification at the U.S. Capitol.
Launching a special White House initiative celebrating momentous feats advancing democracy would help repair public faith and send a strong message that the Biden-Harris administration holds democratic values and processes in the highest esteem. It would also reassure foreign allies that the United States can again be counted on to defend democracy abroad.
The 2020 election cycle was a potent reminder that democracy is fragile and cannot be taken for granted—nor can America take for granted individuals making extraordinary contributions to safeguarding democratic norms and processes. To be sure, safeguarding democracy requires collective effort and sacrifice by all members of society. That being said, there are some who have gone above and beyond the normal course of duty to preserve the republic. These caretakers of democracy deserve special recognition from the highest office in the land. By launching a White House democracy heroes initiative, the Biden-Harris administration could rightly honor acts in service to U.S. democracy while bolstering public faith in its pro-democracy agenda at home and abroad.
Danielle Root is the director of voting rights and access to justice on the Democracy and Government Reform team at the Center for American Progress.