voting rights

Are Failed Voting-Rights Pushes Backfiring for Democrats?

At some point, disappointing constituencies could become a problem. It may already be one. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Democrats forced Senate Republicans on Wednesday to filibuster the Freedom to Vote Act, which is sort of the light version of the comprehensive For the People Act that Senate Democrats forced Senate Republicans to filibuster last month. Chuck Schumer also made it known that, as soon as next week, Senate Democrats plan to force Senate Republicans to filibuster the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, an effort to restore portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted in 2013.

The idea is to show how committed Democrats are to voting rights — and how determined Republicans are to let states get away with voter-suppression legislation that turns back the clock on voting rights. But at some point, you have to wonder if the message Democrats are really sending to constituencies worried about voting rights is a bit different: We can’t get this done, and part of the reason we can’t get this done is that some in our own ranks care more about preserving the filibuster than about voting rights.

Yes, as everyone understands by now, Democrats could either abolish or create a “carve-out” from the filibuster with a simple majority vote. That’s what they did with a carve-out for executive and sub–Supreme Court judicial confirmations in 2013 and what Republicans did with a carve-out for SCOTUS confirmations in 2017. (For that matter, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which both parties have used to pass filibusterproof legislation for many decades, represents a filibuster carve-out as well.) But Democrats cannot do that because at least two of their senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, won’t let them. So unless there is some secret deal whereby one of these senators will dramatically and at the last second reverse the positions they have endlessly and redundantly and adamantly taken, Democrats really are demonstrating their disunity and fecklessness alongside the evil unity and obstructionism of the GOP.

Perhaps party leaders should think about that as they examine disturbing signs of Democratic-base discouragement and disillusionment that could produce an electoral disaster in 2022. As Alex Samuels of FiveThirtyEight argues, the overall record of delivering results to people of color by this president and Congress so far is not terribly impressive:

Today, Democrats (again) attempted to pass a compromise version of a voting-rights bill, and Republicans rejected it (again). Police reform met a similar fate in September. And earlier that month, Democrats faced another setback after the Senate parliamentarian excluded a pathway for citizenship for immigrants from the upcoming reconciliation bill.

Of course, in a highly polarized Congress, it was always likely that not all of Biden’s priorities would pass. But the current failure of these three measures in particular — all of which disproportionately affect people of color — poses a real problem for the Biden administration.

Democrats can loudly blame this on Republicans or more quietly blame it on Manchin and Sinema. They would be right to do either or both. But perhaps the lack of results speaks more loudly than any words on the Senate floor. “Messaging” votes that aren’t really designed to accomplish anything have become extremely common in Washington these days. But it’s important to remember that legislative offerings promising bold action on strongly felt needs and grievances can gradually and then rapidly undermine confidence in the likelihood that anything will change. On voting rights in particular, Democrats should beware drawing too much attention to their own futility.

Are Failed Voting-Rights Pushes Backfiring for Democrats?