Inertia, Rabid Opposition And A Broken System Doomed Democrats’ Democracy Legislation

The GOP is radicalizing against democracy, and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema bucked their own party. U.S. democracy ultimately may not be able to fix itself.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

The modest alterations Democrats proposed to the United States’ ailing democracy finally died in the Senate late Wednesday night, when one of the nation’s most anti-democratic institutions failed to alter an anti-democratic rule.

Senate Republicans once again blocked the Freedom to Vote-John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a merger of two bills that would’ve expanded federal oversight of elections and established national standards for voting rights. Hours later, Democrats tried to reform Senate filibuster rules in a way that would allow them to pass the bill with a simple majority. But that vote failed too, when Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) joined all 50 Republicans against the rule change.

Many people contributed to the legislation’s failure. The Republican Party, whose members not long ago supported legislation similar to the John Lewis bill and many provisions of the Freedom to Vote Act, has united in lockstep against any expansion of voting rights. Sinema and Manchin, both of whom support the legislation in theory, refused to back reforms to the Senate filibuster that would’ve allowed the bills to become law. And President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) may have been too slow to prioritize federal voting legislation even in the face of an onslaught of state-level Republican voter suppression bills.

But the real problem is existential. The uniquely anti-democratic structures of the American political system have historically thwarted any effort to make the United States a more representative nation, especially for its Black, Latino, Native American and other marginalized populations. Now they have done so again, at a crucial crossroads for the country’s democracy.

“This democracy has always been imperfect, and everything that we’ve seen in the past year is a reflection of the original sins,” said Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a grassroots group that pushed for the passage of both bills. “Some of the cracks have reached the point, or really past the point, where it’s affecting the entire process, and where we simply don’t have a truly representative government.”

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — and the Republican efforts to curb voting rights that followed it — inspired new urgency around Democrats' attempts to pass federal voting rights legislation. But ultimately, it did more to radicalize Republicans than it did to firm up Democratic support for major reform.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — and the Republican efforts to curb voting rights that followed it — inspired new urgency around Democrats' attempts to pass federal voting rights legislation. But ultimately, it did more to radicalize Republicans than it did to firm up Democratic support for major reform.
Brent Stirton via Getty Images

Democrats’ push to pass voting rights over the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold created a dramatic showcase of the anti-democratic nature of the chamber’s rules. And it helped solidify support for changing the filibuster as a party position. Despite a raft of news stories alleging that Manchin and Sinema were simply the public face of a larger pro-filibuster bloc of Democrats, every other member of the Senate caucus voted to change the rules. Support for changing the filibuster to pass legislation is now a must-have policy position for almost every Democrat running for Senate in 2022.

The chief culprit, however, is not the filibuster but the Senate, a legislative body that is biased in favor of rural, whiter, low-population states at the expense of more populated, Blacker and browner areas of the country. The filibuster, an arcane Senate rule that places an arbitrary 60-vote threshold on nearly all forms of legislation, further intensifies the Senate’s minoritarian structure: The 52 senators who voted to maintain the rule Wednesday night, in fact, represent 34 million fewer Americans than the 48 who voted to change it. And a total lack of representation for the District of Columbia, whose 700,000 mostly Black and brown residents do not enjoy the benefits of statehood, skews the body even more.

Alter any of those even slightly in favor of small-d democratic representation, and Biden likely would’ve signed the voting rights legislation into law months ago. Instead, Democrats were forced to craft a convoluted strategy that was always more likely to fail than it was to succeed.

The bills were an attempt to arrest a decade-long anti-democratic spiral brought about by the GOP’s steady radicalization and legal assaults on the right to vote. Their failure shows that the spiral is nowhere near its bottom yet — and that the institutions that could end it may be completely incapable of doing so.

A Narrow (And Unexpected) Path Forward

Democratic efforts to bolster voting rights did not begin with Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, nor the conspiracy theories he spread in an attempt to undermine two presidential elections, including one that he won. Congressional Democrats spent nearly a decade crafting various legislative proposals that ultimately became the For The People Act, the first iteration of their major voting and election reform bill that they immediately introduced when they assumed control of both chambers of Congress last year.

The party’s rush to safeguard the democratic process began in response to a major groundshift during Barack Obama’s first term. In early 2010, the Supreme Court freed big money groups from contribution limits and, in many cases, disclosure laws with its ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. Subsequently, well-heeled conservative groups spent big to help Republicans win state legislatures across the country during the midterms later that year.

Those newly elected GOP legislatures then locked in highly gerrymandered maps for the House and state legislative races ― a particularly effective way to limit the political power and representation of Black people and other marginalized groups ― and passed a raft of new restrictions on voter access. Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, already falsely claimed widespread election fraud committed by the community organization Acorn had helped Obama win the White House in 2008.

Another blow came in 2013, when the Supreme Court’s five conservatives gutted key sections of the Voting Rights Act, enabling GOP-led states to enact further voting restrictions.

In response, Democrats introduced a series of bills under the umbrella of “democracy reform” that would eventually coalesce, in 2019, into the For The People Act. These included the late Democratic Rep. John Lewis’ Voter Empowerment Act, which set federal standards for voter access; new legislation reauthorizing and restoring the Voting Rights Act; a public campaign financing bill from Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.); and the Disclose Act banning undisclosed “dark money” in elections.

When Democrats won control of the House in 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tapped Sarbanes to combine these “democracy reform” bills into an omnibus package. The bill passed the House on a party-line vote in 2019, but died without a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill gained new life thanks to Biden’s victory over Trump last year; its passage became a potential reality when Democrats won two shock runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, 2021, handing the party slim majority control of the Senate.

Unexpected victories for Sens. Jon Ossoff (left) and Raphael Warnock in Georgia's run-off elections gave Democrats a narrow Senate majority — and a plausible path forward on voting rights legislation party leaders had spent years crafting.
Unexpected victories for Sens. Jon Ossoff (left) and Raphael Warnock in Georgia's run-off elections gave Democrats a narrow Senate majority — and a plausible path forward on voting rights legislation party leaders had spent years crafting.
Paras Griffin via Getty Images

The next day, Trump, still falsely claiming that his election loss was illegitimate, inspired his supporters to storm the Capitol as Congress met to certify electoral votes. The insurrection last Jan. 6 provided dramatic evidence for the need to protect voting rights and democracy.

But it is clear now that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and the drama of Jan. 6 only inspired Republicans to restrict voting access further. Early in 2021, Republican state lawmakers introduced more than 400 bills to curb voting rights and expand partisan power over elections. Thirty-one eventually became law in 19 different states. The GOP’s increasing devotion to Trump and its radical and conspiratorial skepticism about the 2020 election, meanwhile, convinced its own followers that Democrats were waging an assault on democracy, and that its efforts to limit the vote were the only way to save it.

Voting rights advocates saw the torrent of voter suppression bills inspired by Trump’s lies as evidence of the desperate need to pass legislation protecting voter access and voting rights, especially after the states had loosened voting rules around the country during the pandemic. Those changes helped produce the highest voter turnout in 100 years with no legitimate problems found. Polls, meanwhile, showed that large majorities of Americans enjoyed the expanded voting options and wanted to make them permanent.

House Democrats wasted little time: They swiftly passed the For The People Act on March 3, 2021, with only one Democratic defection, and sent it to the Senate where 49 out of 50 Democratic senators were co-sponsors of the bill. Manchin, despite co-sponsoring the bill in 2019, was the lone hold-out.

In the states, Republicans needed just a simple majority to enact restrictive voting legislation. In the Senate, however, Democrats wouldn’t just need Manchin to sign onto the bill; they also needed 10 Republicans to join him to break the filibuster. If they didn’t — and despite Manchin and Sinema’s insistences, it was always far-fetched that they would — Democrats would need all 50 of their members to agree to overhaul the rule.

By the spring, most of them were ready to do just that. In a March press conference, Schumer declared that “everything is on the table” to pass voting rights legislation, an allusion to his willingness to change the Senate’s filibuster rules. The hope among those inside and outside of Congress was to get the bill passed early in the summer. But those hopes were soon dashed.

The bill met a party-line deadlock vote in the Senate Rules Committee in May. Then, in early June, Manchin announced in an op-ed in a local West Virginia newspaper that he now opposed the bill in its current form since it did not secure the support of any Republican. Democratic leadership flew into action to try and salvage the bill by bringing Manchin to the table.

Where Is The White House?

Despite Biden calling the spate of voter suppression bills passed in states like Georgia and Texas “Jim Crow in the 21st century” and “an atrocity” at a press conference last March, his administration did little to help congressional Democrats and outside voting rights advocates pass their legislation.

“For whatever reason, the White House failed to understand the overriding importance of this battle for the country, for the voters who are going to be denied the ability to vote and even for their own self interest in having a House and or Senate in the future that will not spend all of its time investigating them and attacking them,” said Fred Wertheimer, a leading outside advocate of the voting rights legislation who hosted daily organizing calls for the coalition support the bill in the final weeks of Senate consideration.

Throughout the spring and summer, anonymous White House aides were quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, The Atlantic and Politico downplaying the importance of enacting new voting rights legislation and expressing a belief that the effort was doomed to fail.

“[S]ome White House officials do not adopt the do-or-die tone that many Democrats use when they talk about the For the People Act, the party’s premier voting bill,” The Washington Post reported in June.

“I think our feeling is, show us what the rules are and we will figure out a way to educate our voters and make sure they understand how they can vote and we will get them out to vote,” one official told The Atlantic in May.

Despite sharp early rhetoric on GOP voting bills in the states, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were slow to use the White House bully pulpit to help push voting legislation forward in the Senate. By the time Biden tried, falling approval ratings and frayed relations with key senators, including Joe Manchin, limited his impact.
Despite sharp early rhetoric on GOP voting bills in the states, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were slow to use the White House bully pulpit to help push voting legislation forward in the Senate. By the time Biden tried, falling approval ratings and frayed relations with key senators, including Joe Manchin, limited his impact.
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

As help from the White House failed to materialize, Manchin released his own “compromise” proposal on the bill in September. His proposal trimmed down the original bill, jettisoning ethics provisions and campaign finance elements like public campaign financing and reorganizing the Federal Election Commission, but maintained many of the key voting rights and redistricting provisions. He then joined Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Angus King (I-Maine), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) in a Group of 8 to write the new bill.

Now with all 50 Democrats on board with some form of bill, Schumer brought the For The People Act to the floor of the Senate for a test vote to highlight Republican obstruction in October. And again, Republicans voted to block the Senate from debating the bill. Schumer would force Republicans to block the For The People Act one more time over the summer.

Meanwhile, tensions mounted between voting rights advocates and the White House. In calls with civil and voting rights groups, White House aides reportedly expressed that the groups could simply “out-organize” the new GOP voter suppression laws without passing new voting rights legislation. Those groups went public with their complaint about the White House’s inaction on July 13, when 150 civil and voting rights groups published a letter to the White House excoriating Biden for failing to use his position to help pass the legislation despite stating that the new voter suppression laws constituted “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”

“We cannot and should not have to organize our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting that lawmakers are passing and proposing at the state level,” read the letter from July 22.

At the same time, the House began to move on another voting rights bill, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This bill would reauthorize and expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark civil rights law passed after Lewis and others were beaten bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they marched from Selma to Montgomery. That bill had established significant protections for Black voting rights and eradicated decades of Jim Crow voter suppression tactics and had been reauthorized with bipartisan support three times since, most recently in 2006.

But Republican administrations sought, unsuccessfully, to defang it ever since Richard Nixon took office. Working as a lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, a young John Roberts tried to get the Senate to block a 1981 reauthorization of the law, but failed. Roberts eventually became chief justice on the Supreme Court, where he was able to do what he had failed to do in 1981: He gutted a key section of the law in a 2013 decision that paved the way for a wave of new state laws that sought to restrict the franchise, and joined an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito in 2021 further limiting it.

The John Lewis law was designed to restore the sections of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the court by updating the formula used to determine if a state voting statute was discriminatory, and if a state could be found in violation of the law by repeatedly enacting discriminatory statutes. Its reestablishment of preclearance requirements ― in which states with histories of discrimination had to clear voting changes and electoral maps with the federal government before they went into effect ― would restore key protections of voting rights and representation for Black people and other marginalized groups.

But in order to build a legislative record that could withstand a challenge to the law in the courts, the House held extensive hearings on the legislation. And that meant the bill was not introduced and voted on in the House until August.

“She ducked us. She dodged us. It was always, ‘She’ll get back to you.' She never got back to us.”

- Texas state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D), on efforts to meet with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)

Meanwhile, the fervor over GOP attacks on voting rights in the states reached its peak last summer, when a group of Texas Democrats fled their state to break quorum and prevent the passage of a restrictive law that specifically targeted heavily Democratic counties — and their disproportionately Black and Latino populations — had leaned on to vote during the pandemic.

The Texas lawmakers thought their decampment to Washington, D.C., would spark the White House and Senate Democrats to act. But although they found an audience with Harris, who took the lead on the White House’s voting rights pitch, and multiple Senate Democrats, they eventually returned to Texas fearing that the federal response they wanted wasn’t on the way.

Manchin, at least, met with members of the Texas House delegation, and during a July sit-down even expressed some openness to certain filibuster tweaks, the Rev. Al Sharpton said then, during an event at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington. Sinema, who has faced criticism at home for refusing to meet with constituents or engage with key Democratic interest groups, discussed the issue by phone with Texas state Sen. Carol Alvarado (D). But she never met with the broader group of state legislators, a decision that still frustrates them.

“She ducked us. She dodged us,” Texas state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D), one of the lawmakers who fled the state, told HuffPost this week. “It was always, ‘She’ll get back to you.’ She never got back to us.” The lawmakers met with Sinema’s staff instead.

Another Big Push

Sensing a lack of urgency, civil rights leaders announced plans for a round of massive protests meant to coincide with the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which had paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In late August, thousands of demonstrators gathered at various events on the National Mall. Similar protests took place in Atlanta and other major cities in states where GOP lawmakers had gone on the attack.

“We’re going to be focusing like a laser on our senators to get them to understand that the people of America want voting rights expanded, not restricted,” Martin Luther King III, the son of the late civil rights leader, told HuffPost ahead of the rally.

On Aug. 28, 2021 — the 58th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington — civil rights leaders organized another march in the nation's capital to call for the passage of federal voting rights legislation that would help thwart a bevy of new voter restriction laws passed by Republican state legislatures.
On Aug. 28, 2021 — the 58th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington — civil rights leaders organized another march in the nation's capital to call for the passage of federal voting rights legislation that would help thwart a bevy of new voter restriction laws passed by Republican state legislatures.

When Congress returned from summer recess, the Group of 8 released its compromise proposal, now called the Freedom to Vote Act. It maintained nearly all of the voting rights elements of the For The People Act while removing all of the former bill’s ethics provisions and dramatically changing many of its campaign finance provisions. Now, with all 50 Democrats behind both bills, the real action could finally happen. Or so they hoped.

Since Manchin said he could get Republicans to support the Freedom to Vote Act, Schumer allowed him some time to pitch the new bill to Republicans and find even one senator to support it. None emerged. Republicans continued to deride the legislation as a “federal takeover of elections,” the same line used by 1960s segregationists opposed to the original Voting Rights Act. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the lone Republican to come out in support of the John Lewis bill, but she did not endorse the Freedom to Vote Act.

At this point, Congress was swamped with other issues. A fierce debate between House progressives and Manchin and Sinema over their bipartisan infrastructure bill and Biden’s Build Back Better proposal left Congress at a standstill. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval ratings tanked amid the rise of the delta variant of the coronavirus and, in particular, as the Taliban quickly swept into power in Afghanistan amid a planned U.S. troop withdrawal. Thirteen U.S. service members were killed outside the Kabul airport during the planned evacuation, and the administration endured weeks of searing media coverage. The White House’s attention could not be brought to bear on voting rights.

“The president has met with Sinema and Manchin on numerous occasions on infrastructure and BBB,” Wertheimer said. “Throughout this period, as far as we know, there were never meetings on the voting rights legislation until the very, very end, and it’s not clear what happened in those meetings.”

In the fall, voting rights activists and state lawmakers turned their attention to Biden and the White House, which they had come to believe was insufficiently devoted to the cause. In October, two dozen activists were arrested outside the White House during a demonstration meant to push Biden to back filibuster reform.

Eventually, Biden endorsed the need for those changes. With the Build Back Better Act similarly stalled, Schumer announced in December that Democrats would shift attention to voting rights, and Biden called on the Senate to create a filibuster carve out for the legislation. Three moderates — King of Maine, Kaine from Virginia and Tester from Montana — met with Manchin multiple times to discuss what changes to the filibuster he could support. And sources with knowledge of those negotiations said they believed he was genuinely interested.

New Year, Same Frustrations

Activist frustration carried into the new year: When Biden announced that he’d give a voting rights-focused speech in Atlanta in January, a coalition of progressive groups decided not to attend. Georgia activists had spent the last year fighting the latest GOP voting bill, and for federal action. They didn’t need to host a speech on the importance of the legislation; they wanted action, or at least a plan for one.

“That speech could’ve been given in West Virginia, or could’ve been given in Arizona or the Rose Garden,” said Kendra Cotton, the chief operating officer of the New Georgia Project, a grassroots progressive group that was part of the coalition that skipped the speech. “There was no reason to come down to Georgia, except for a photo-op.”

Biden’s speech blistered the GOP and Trump for spreading conspiracy theories and attempting to curb voting rights. But the groups’ fears that the president had spoken up too late remained.

“The source of the problem are these Republicans who do not believe in democracy,” said Albright of Black Voters Matter, another group that skipped the speech.

“But,” he continued, “the President says he wants to save the soul of a nation, and one of the things I always say back to him is that you can’t save the soul of the nation if you’re unclear about how corrupted and infected that soul has become. And sometimes in this battle, the President hasn’t really been clear enough about how infected the soul of the nation has become.”

“If you believe it’s a dark moment, then you have got to have an historic response,” Albright added. “And if I asked you whether or not the president’s response, or the Senate’s response, has been historic, you’d be hard pressed to answer that question by saying, ‘Yes.’”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) effectively killed Democrats' priority voting legislation in January, when she made it clear that she wouldn't support changes to the filibuster.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) effectively killed Democrats' priority voting legislation in January, when she made it clear that she wouldn't support changes to the filibuster.
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Just days later, with Biden on his way to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Democrats, Sinema all but killed the effort. In a floor speech that distorted both the history and impact of the filibuster, she maintained that she would, under no circumstances, vote to reform it. Manchin followed suit soon after.

“Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time,” Biden said coming out of the caucus meeting after Sinema’s speech. “We missed this time. We missed this time.”

The White House expended little more energy on the issue of voting rights. The day before Democrats planned to force a vote on changing the filibuster rules to pass their legislation, the White House focused the daily press briefing on infrastructure. After the final cloture vote on Wednesday failed, Harris left her seat presiding over the Senate, where she could presumably break a tie on changing the filibuster rules. With Manchin and Sinema set on voting no, leaving no hope for a tie, she turned the gavel over to Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and left.

“No matter what anyone did to try to persuade them, they were locked in from the beginning. And if that’s what you face, you eventually cannot win in the Senate.”

- Fred Wertheimer, voting rights advocate, on Manchin and Sinema

Throughout 2021, congressional Democrats and outside activists hung their hopes on Manchin’s continued engagement in the process while dissecting his statements of opposition to changing the filibuster rules for glimpses of a foot left in the door. He helped write the Freedom to Vote Act, so why spend the time to do that and then not take action to pass your own bill? He repeatedly claimed support for a “talking filibuster.” What that meant, exactly, was unclear. And while he said he opposed eliminating or weakening the filibuster, that wouldn’t preclude a change to filibuster rules pitched as strengthening it, they thought.

“You couldn’t not believe that there was a chance to do this based on Manchin engaging the way he did,” said one person with knowledge of the negotiations with Manchin.

Democrats began to talk about “restoring the Senate,” as they pitched changing filibuster rules. They talked about how Manchin’s idol, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose seat Manchin holds and whose legacy he claims to carry on, supported changes to the filibuster rules while remaining a staunch Senate institutionalist. Manchin himself even cosponsored and voted for changes to the filibuster rules in 2011.

But these signs turned out to be a mirage. All along, Manchin stated that he was opposed to changing the rules by a simple majority vote, the so-called “nuclear option.”

“No matter what anyone did to try to persuade them, they were locked in from the beginning,” Wertheimer said. “And if that’s what you face, you eventually cannot win in the Senate.”

Or, as Reynolds put it after watching Sinema’s speech: “The fix was in.”

Even a last-ditch effort, timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, did nothing to sway the two senators. At events in Phoenix and Washington over the weekend, King III and other civil rights leaders insisted to Manchin and Sinema that failure would dishonor MLK’s legacy and leave Black and brown voters vulnerable, all over “a little technicality called the filibuster.”

“When Manchin says he is carrying out the legacy of Sen. Byrd, he is doing nothing like that,” Wertheimer said. “Manchin and Sinema are really carrying forward the legacy of the Jim Crow laws — and history will not be kind to them.”

An Institutional Problem

The political fallout from the failure of one of Democrats’ major priorities could hit everyone involved. Sinema now seems destined to face a primary challenge in 2024, and Manchin might too, although Democrats are unlikely to hold onto his Senate seat no matter who they nominate. (Trump won West Virginia by nearly 40 points.) Biden and congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are already facing an unfriendly political landscape ahead of 2022’s midterm elections, and their inability to deliver on voting rights may fuel further malaise among key Democratic constituencies that are already frustrated with the party over a host of other issues.

“The natural response from some people will be, ‘Well, we gave you power, and what have you done with it?’” Albright said. “For many people, like it or not, where this White House and the Senate stands on voting rights is a litmus test on whether or not you truly have our backs or you don’t. You can’t go to some people who’ve spent months out in the street fighting for a thing, not deliver on that thing and then think that that’s not going to have an impact.”

Early in the cycle, some Democratic candidates have tried to make democracy protection a key campaign issue. But the party has also struggled to make the case, especially to independent voters, that the GOP is a blatant threat to democracy. More Republicans than Democrats feel democracy is currently under attack, according to a September CNN poll. Independent voters, meanwhile, are roughly split between which party poses the bigger threat, a November survey from Marist University found.

The demise of Democrats’ major reform bills also raises broader questions about the ability of America’s current institutions to do enough to mitigate the threats facing democracy. If anything, they are allowing them to prosper.

It may be years before Democrats have another chance to enact federal voting rights legislation as broad as the Freedom to Vote Act, the failure of which will pave the way for Republicans to pass even more of their own restrictive laws through state legislatures.
It may be years before Democrats have another chance to enact federal voting rights legislation as broad as the Freedom to Vote Act, the failure of which will pave the way for Republicans to pass even more of their own restrictive laws through state legislatures.
Pacific Press via Getty Images

If they are indeed dead ― voting rights groups universally vowed to continue fighting for federal legislation after Wednesday’s vote ― the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will be closer to the American rule than an exception to it: Over the last century, the Senate, the filibuster and other legislative procedures have routinely conspired to thwart ambitious and popular legislation, especially when it is meant to expand and protect basic civil, voting and democratic rights for the nation’s Black people and other marginalized populations.

In the elections of 1888, Republicans — then the party of civil rights — won the White House and majorities in both the House and Senate, and shortly thereafter introduced legislation to federalize elections in order to protect Black voting rights in the South. It died in the Senate, in large part due to the filibuster. Thirty years later, Southern Democrats successfully filibustered an anti-lynching act that had overwhelmingly passed in the House.

The 1888 voting rights bill was the last effort to substantially expand Black voting rights for nearly a century — it wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, each of which narrowly overcame a Senate filibuster, that the Jim Crow Era finally came to an end.

“One hundred years of filibustered civil rights laws. One hundred years of Jim Crow. One hundred years of poll taxes and impossible tests for Black voters. One hundred years of being so intimidated at polling places that many felt safer staying at home,” Arndrea Waters King, a civil rights leader and the daughter-in-law of Martin Luther King Jr., said at the Monday event in Washington. “The filibuster is not some time-honored tradition that must be preserved to protect democracy. And even if it were, what good is a filibuster when preserving it will destroy the democracy it is supposed to protect?”

The current effort faced another barrier linked to the nation’s history of disenfranchising its Black population ― a glaring anti-democratic problem that sits right outside the Senate’s doorstep, and that it failed to fix.

The near-total exclusion of the nation’s capital from the American political system leaves 700,000 mostly Black and brown residents of D.C. without a voice in Congress or the Senate; in a system where that wasn’t the case, Democrats would hold a 52-seat majority in the Senate — enough to alter filibuster rules and pass the voting rights bills without persuading Manchin and Sinema to change their minds.

“We cannot talk about voting rights without talking about the disenfranchisement of 700,000 tax-paying Americans right here in Washington, D.C., a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow America,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday during the event hosted by the King family. “Today, we’re talking about the filibuster, but consider this: We wouldn’t even be in this situation if Washington, D.C., had two senators — the two senators we deserve.”

“Not only does the filibuster routinely silence the will of the majority,” Bowser said, “the will of the majority isn’t even fully represented.”

The anti-democratic nature of the U.S. government has perpetuated a dire scenario for democracy across the country. It’s far easier for a hostile state legislature to chip away at basic democratic rights than it is for the federal government to protect them. Now, the federal government may not be able to, and the situation is likely to get worse in the coming years.

Previous Republican efforts to suppress votes have not necessarily succeeded in limiting turnout, which has risen in each recent election. But many of the new laws include provisions meant to make them much more effective, and the GOP’s ongoing attempt to take over the American election system from top to bottom is designed to give Republicans the party to enact the laws with maximum effect. In states that have passed the most aggressive laws, they are already working as intended.

In Texas, counties are rejecting scores of absentee ballot requests ahead of this year’s primaries due to a new GOP law’s more stringent requirements for obtaining one. Georgia Republicans have used their new law to purge members of local election boards for purely partisan reasons, and have disproportionately targeted Black election officials who have used their powers to make it easier for heavily Black communities to vote. In Montana, a new law will make it all but impossible for Native American residents of the state’s most remote reservations to cast ballots next year, while another recent Supreme Court decision could make it easier for Arizona Republicans to target Native communities by shortening polling hours, limiting who can return a voter’s ballot, and where those ballots can be returned.

“Within the reservation, we have a lot of very remote communities,” said Allie Young, a voting rights activist and member of the Navajo Nation, which sits largely inside Arizona’s borders. “It’s already very difficult to get to the polls for our Native peoples, so these restrictions are certainly going to take away our right to vote.”

In other states, new laws empowering partisan poll watchers and expanding GOP legislatures’ partisan influence over local and state election boards could have drastic effects on future elections without the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act, which included provisions to protect election workers and limit the influence of poll watchers. And the long lines that helped inspire the Democratic push to overhaul the nation’s election laws are likely to grow even longer as states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona limit access to drop boxes, absentee ballots, and early voting, close polling places, and purge voters from their rolls.

Without the new laws, and especially the John Lewis bill’s restoration of the Justice Department’s preclearance authority, the federal government will have limited ability to counteract efforts to gerrymander Black and Latino voters out of legitimate representation or to suppress their votes, thanks to the Supreme Court’s continued gutting of the Voting Rights Act. And with no response from Washington, Republicans will only accelerate their efforts in the states, where GOP lawmakers have already introduced scores of new bills to limit voting rights and alter elections this year.

Experts widely consider the Republican Party a major threat to democracy, but a GOP that faces no legislative response or blowback — and, in fact, prospers politically — from its assaults on democracy and institutional advantages is not likely to reverse course. And Democrats may soon find themselves even less able to respond: The current Democratic coalition is concentrated heavily in densely populated urban areas and their surrounding suburbs, a geographic dynamic that favors Republicans in nearly every aspect of the political system.

The Senate and Electoral College are now more drastically biased in favor of the GOP than they ever have been, and thanks to both geography and increasingly aggressive rounds of gerrymandering, many state legislatures are skewed heavily against Democrats and their typical voting blocs as well. Republicans already hold favorable advantages in 43 of the 45 state legislative chambers that analysts consider “extremely gerrymandered.” By the end of the current redistricting cycle, they may succeed in further concentrating their power in state legislatures, rendering many of those chambers completely uncompetitive for another decade.

The sort of drastic reforms that would quickly reshape that kind of landscape into one that could produce a more representative and democratic government are all but impossible under the current political system. And now, the more modest changes Democrats sought to make are dead too. Barring massive shifts between now and next January, it may be years before they have another chance — if it ever comes again.

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