On the afternoon of Jan. 6 one year ago, Rep. Pramila Jayapal crouched in the U.S. House gallery as rioters smashed windows and pounded on the chamber doors.
Jayapal huddled in fear and prayed with other lawmakers as Capitol Police — guns drawn — told them to don gas masks. They were eventually safely evacuated and later returned to certify the election of Joe Biden as president.
As the anniversary of the Capitol attack arrives — marked by candlelit vigils and other commemorations across the country — Jayapal says the threat to U.S. democracy feels as dire as it did a year ago.
“The thing that keeps coming back to me is, first of all, that we were very close to losing our democracy. But we didn’t lose it. We saved it,” the Seattle Democrat said this week.
“But I think that the thing that is difficult about Jan. 6 is not just what happened on the day, it’s what happened in the aftermath. It feels to me just as close to having the big lie succeed and having elections taken over.”
Jayapal cited the dominance of former President Donald Trump over the Republican Party and his continued false insistence that the election was stolen — a position that has become a litmus test for many Republican candidates headed into this year’s midterm elections.
Last year, at least 19 states passed laws tightening access to voting and more than 440 pieces of legislation restricting voting access were proposed in state legislatures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That trend is expected to continue this year.
“It’s a very well-defined, very concerted plan by a group of people to try to overturn our elections at the state level, at the federal level,” Jayapal said.
More than 700 people have been charged with crimes associated with the Capitol breach, with arrests in nearly all 50 states, according to an NPR database of the cases. As of Wednesday, 11 from Washington have been charged, including Ethan Nordean, an Auburn-area man and leader of the Proud Boys extremist group.
While rioters sought to physically block the peaceful transfer of power last year, many Republican lawmakers inside the Capitol also backed Trump’s refusal to cede power by objecting to the certification of electors from swing states. Some, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, backed off their objections after the riot.
Two Washington Republicans, Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, and Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, were among the 10 U.S. House members who bucked their party and voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot. For their actions, they were condemned by the state Republican Party and each faces multiple pro-Trump challengers in the 2022 midterms.
Jayapal and other Democrats have been strongly pushing federal voting-rights legislation as a response to the Jan. 6 attack. Proposals backed by Democrats include the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which together would set minimum national standards for voting access and seek to block discriminatory voting rules and procedures in states and cities.
In a statement commemorating the Jan. 6 anniversary, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said passage of the voting-rights proposals is vital.
“If we are to learn from Jan. 6, then we cannot sit by and just hope our democracy survives. We have to send legislation that protects every American’s right to vote to the president’s desk, and I’m committed to using every legislative tool available to get this done and make sure our democracy stays a democracy,” said Murray, who is scheduled to speak 6 p.m. Thursday at a virtual vigil organized by the League of Women Voters. (Info: st.news/vigil)
But the proposals face uncertain futures and have been opposed by Republicans, who criticize them as a Democratic power grab. Some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, have rejected abolishing the filibuster to get such legislation passed.
Some experts have suggested Congress should amend the Electoral Count Act to remove the ability and temptation for lawmakers — of both parties — to intervene in the presidential election by objecting to the certification of electors from various states.
Jayapal and several other Democrats attempted to object, after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, to the certification of state electoral votes, pointing to long voting lines and other indications of what they said was voter suppression.
The effort was shut down at Jayapal’s attempt to object to Georgia’s presidential election results by then-Vice President Biden, who gaveled her down, declaring “it is over.”
Writing in The Washington Post this week, four constitutional and election-law professors said the “outmoded” 1887 law should be fixed so that Congress will no longer have the authority to meddle with certification. “It is not the role of Congress to revisit a state’s popular vote tally,” they wrote, noting, “This fundamental truth has been lost on both sides of the aisle since 2000.”
In the interview this week, Jayapal said she would support reforms to the Electoral Count Act. But she said the 2016 objections are not anywhere comparable to the massive effort by Republicans and Trump in 2020 to actually reverse the election results.
Jayapal said she worries that pro-Trump forces have only grown more bold over the past year, noting the resistance by most Republicans in Congress to the official probe into the Jan. 6 riot.
“If those people in Congress refuse to admit that there was anything wrong that happened on Jan. 6, that Donald Trump was a part of it, that there should be an investigation to get to the bottom of it, as long as they are continuing to deny that and rewrite history, or to actively promote the same things that led to Jan. 6, we are still very, very close to the fragility of our democracy,” she said.