As expected, Republicans filibustered a motion to proceed to Senate consideration of the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting-rights and election-reform bill that cleared the House in March. Tuesday’s motion produced a pure partisan split, with its famous Democratic opponent, Joe Manchin, voting with his party to open debate on the bill — presumably in hopes of getting a vote on his recently unveiled compromise proposal, though key GOP senators quickly denounced it.
In theory the Manchin proposal could get a fresh look, and a narrow component of it — a revival of the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provisions — is still alive in the separate John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But all in all, prospects look grim for any voting-rights legislation in the Senate, with Republicans attacking any Democratic proposals as “power grabs” designed to block restrictive state-level Republican legislation, and this GOP hostility failing to shake Manchin and several other Senate Democrats in their opposition to filibuster reform.
This boulder in the path to voting-rights legislation will almost certainly embolden those Democrats who have considered the subject a waste of time and energy all along. Both publicly and privately, some Democrats have argued that the party needs to focus on bread-and-butter economic initiatives that poll well and either have some Republican support (i.e., an “infrastructure” package) or can be passed via budget-reconciliation procedures with just 50 Senate votes. Ron Brownstein, who views reversing voter suppression efforts in the states as an existential challenge for Democrats, reports that even in the White House there exists a willingness to move on quickly after a pro forma effort on voting rights:
[I]t’s clear that the White House is operating at a more tempered level of concern than other Democrats about the threats to small-d democracy emerging in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election. Based on my conversations with them, officials there seem to take a more nuanced and restrained view of what’s happening. They do not believe that more assertive public denunciation from Biden would dissuade any of the Republican governors or legislators who have moved to restrict voting rights. And although White House officials consider the laws offensive from a civil-rights perspective, they do not think most of those laws will advantage Republicans in the 2022 and 2024 elections as much as many liberal activists fear.
This sort of limited commitment to voting-rights legislation is, of course, music to the ears of those Democrats who believe anything that smacks of special attention for Black and other minority Americans is a midterm-election killer among white voters who might otherwise warm to Biden’s jobs, infrastructure, and family support initiatives. And the fact that voting-rights proponents cannot presently identify any viable path to legislative success only increases the impatience of those in the party ranks who want to stop looking “woke” and resume tossing money around.
This attitude is both short-sighted and unprincipled. Every bit of time spent on voting rights agitation and legislative activity is a sound investment that will pay off richly for Democrats. Here’s why:
This debate on national voting standards is urgent and long overdue
Until Democrats took control of the Senate this year, Congress had been under either divided or Republican control since 2011, short-circuiting any real debate or legislative progress on maintaining minimal national standards for voting and elections. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court gutted protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as even as Republican-controlled states launched successive waves of increasingly partisan attacks on access to the ballot.
The Trump campaign’s efforts to convince state-level Republicans to overturn adverse election results in 2020 was neither the beginning nor the end of this sinister trend, which is advancing under the false flag of election integrity. Even if one believes Democrats can counter such developments with voter education and base mobilization efforts, the message that Republicans are traducing basic democratic norms that should prevail in all 50 states is essential to the task. Promoting federal legislation and — if it fails — aggressive Justice Department enforcement efforts and litigation is the simplest way to draw this line in the sand.
State-level Democrats are playing defense, and need high-profile allies
Whether or not new federal voting-rights legislation can be enacted before the 2022 midterms, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration — from the president and vice-president on down — owe their counterparts in Republican-controlled states loud and active support when voting rights are compromised or election administration is subverted. The idea that such matters are entirely up the states contradicts every bit of voting rights legislation and litigation pursued since the high tide of the civil-rights movement.
Aside from state legislative fights and litigation ongoing right now, voting rights and related issues such as partisan gerrymandering and neutral election administration are going to be red-hot midterm issues in many parts of the country, with fateful consequences. A coordinated Democratic message from the president down to state legislative candidates is the most effective way to wage this very national fight.
Voting rights is the best issue on which to fight the recent assault on democratic norms
Without much question, the abandonment of democratic norms by Donald Trump’s Republican followers is best illustrated by their attacks on voting rights and fair administration of elections in 2020. And if Democrats are serious about institutional reforms that prevent authoritarian and ant-majoritarian abuses of power by the GOP, whether it’s filibuster reform, admission of new states, or even judicial reform, the need to restore representative democracy remains the strongest context for remedial action.
Yes, the inability to get 50 Senate Democrats to support filibuster reform is precisely why the For the People Act and probably even the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are doomed in this Congress. But if filibuster reform is ever to succeed, he best foot forward is likely an effort to vindicate voting rights for all U.S. citizens, appealing to what was very recently a bipartisan tradition.
Democrats have a moral obligation to defend the rights of their most loyal and vulnerable constituents
While voting rights is a universal cause transcending race, gender, class, or national origin, there is no question the current GOP-led assault on the franchise is squarely aimed at predominantly Democratic constituencies, including those Black, Latino, Asian American, and under-30 voters who have traditionally been the object of discrimination in this area. If Democratic elected officials in Washington are indifferent to their plight or treat voting rights as an unsexy “process issue,” why should young and minority voters feel any reciprocal loyalty?
Yes, Democrats need to be smart in choosing their priorities in this precious moment of party power in Washington. But voting rights are too fundamental to all rights, and too central to Democratic electoral prospects, to be subordinated to other issues the minute it becomes expedient.
And for that matter, the party can keep the focus on voting and election fairness in 2021 without sacrificing other legislation. The current infrastructure negotiations will either succeed or fail by July. Then President Biden’s remaining budget-germane initiatives — whatever is left of his infrastructure proposals, plus his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan — will be rolled into a budget reconciliation bill that is expected to take shape by mid-summer and reach fruition this fall. There’s even a possibility that Democrats could include in this legislation election administration or voter education spending, making defense of democracy filibuster-proof.
Perhaps at some point it will become politically, legislatively, and morally imperative to “move on” from voting rights as a Democratic priority. But that moment has not yet arrived, and may never.