Twenty-three floors below one of Senator Roy Blunt's regional offices, dozens of demonstrators spill across the sidewalk outside of the federal courthouse building in downtown St. Louis. The soon-to-retire Republican is not one to engage a rally not of his choosing, and even so, he's almost surely not upstairs, having spent the mid-September morning with Congresswoman Ann Wagner at the former home of Ulysses S. Grant to announce legislation seeking posthumous honors for the Army general and former president.
Still, those outside the courthouse hope Blunt is not entirely out of reach.
"We know much is at stake," Denise Lieberman, a voting rights expert and director of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, says from atop a set of courthouse stairs. "Our democracy is in crisis. We have witnessed a full-scale assault on our freedom to vote right here in Missouri and in states around the country."
Lieberman and MOVPC have been fighting a succession of restrictive voting bills and practices in Missouri for fifteen years, and this stretch between elections and state legislative sessions would normally be a lull in the ongoing battle. But the fight over who has a say in our government has multiplied in intensity in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Ex-President Donald Trump's continued insistence on lying about widespread voter fraud and a stolen election has prompted an onslaught of legislation from Republicans in statehouses across the country that would restrict access to the polls. The fact that no mass fraud has ever materialized has done nothing to slow the pace.
Missouri politicos, including rightwing candidates hoping to out-Trump each other in the campaign for Blunt's Senate seat, have played an outsized role in seeding distrust in the election system. Attorney General Eric Schmitt, one of those would-be successors to Blunt, pulled Missouri into one losing legal battle after another to challenge the results in swing states. The state legislature is peppered with senators and representatives on the right who have openly suggested Trump won — and others nervous about what would happen if they admit he didn't. And Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has tried to stand in two places at once: arguing Missouri elections have been safe and secure under his watch, while simultaneously claiming the state is wide open to fraud if it doesn't place more restrictions on voters.
Lieberman sees an old playbook at work — targeting low-income and minority voters by adding unnecessary barriers. But she also sees hope at the state level in Missouri's protective constitution and nationally in a package of voting reforms that rival the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in their potential to ensure everyone has a right to be heard.
Protecting that right, she says in an interview, is at the heart of freedom and self-determination.
"If I don't have the ability to have a say so in my community, if I don't have an ability to speak publicly, if don't have an ability to hold my elected officials accountable, if don't have any ability to have a voice in my own destiny or in the futures of my children, how am I truly free?" she asks. "And that's why, for me, this is a moral imperative."
The rally below Blunt's office at Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse is aimed at appealing to the senator's moderate angels. Blunt and his colleagues have been called upon to approve — or reject — the most sweeping package of changes to U.S. voting laws in three generations. The Freedom to Vote Act, potentially the most viable of several major voting bills, includes reforms such as expanding opportunities to cast a ballot, outlawing the practice of spreading election misinformation, banning partisan gerrymandering, fighting discrimination and shifting campaign finance away from dark money powerbrokers. Support has been split in Congress among party lines, but the demonstrators hope to sway Blunt as he eyes the exit on his long career in public office.
"Finish the job!" they shout.
Technically, demonstrators are calling on Senator Josh Hawley as well, but he is all but a lost cause. Hawley, who has an office next to Blunt's in the upper reaches of the courthouse, is essentially a lieutenant of the forces those at the rally are fighting against. He was the first senator to announce he would object to certifying the Electoral College results in the 2020 presidential election. The move positioned him to capture the attention of Trump's most extreme followers and helped power the narrative of an election system riddled with fraud and crooked officials. On the day of the Senate action, January 6, Hawley was photographed raising his fist to salute people outside the U.S. Capitol who later stormed the building in hopes of reversing Trump's defeat. And when rioters were finally cleared from the Capitol and senators emerged from safe rooms, he was one of just six who objected to certifying the election results.
No one outside the courthouse is reaching Hawley. Just the mention of his name alongside Blunt's draws sarcastic laughter from the crowd. But Lieberman is concerned. There are plenty of people in power right now who share Hawley's positions, or at least, his political instincts.
"I'm not trying to sound dramatic here," Lieberman says later, "but the fate of democracy hangs in the balance right now in a way we haven't seen since the Civil War period."