The yearlong quest to enact new voting rights legislation ended in the Senate on Wednesday, with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) siding with the 50 Republicans against changing Senate filibuster rules to allow the bill to pass.
The failure of the bill marked a bitter disappointment for Democrats, who argued its passage was all that stood in the way of a new era of voter suppression laws in Republican-led states on the inspiration of ex-President Donald Trump’s election lies. Those new laws amount to “Jim Crow 2.0,” President Joe Biden said on Jan. 11, with states “making it harder to vote,” and making partisan decisions about “whether your vote counts at all.”
With the Senate’s failure to pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, those laws ― limiting voting access and, in Georgia, enabling partisans to purge local election boards ― will remain on the books for the foreseeable future.
The votes capped a long day of speeches that recalled an institution of yesteryear, with most senators physically in their seats, listening intently to colleagues on both sides of the aisle and even occasionally engaging in real debate with each other on a piece of legislation ― a rare sight for the so-called “world’s greatest deliberative body.”
The House-passed version of the legislation is a combination of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It would have set federal guidelines for voter access requiring states to allow early and absentee voting, online and automatic voter registration, make Election Day a holiday and restore voting rights to ex-felons, among other things.
The bill also would have restored sections of the historic Voting Rights Act gutted by Supreme Court decisions in 2013 and 2021, and would have provided an affirmative right to vote and access to the ballot that could be enforced in court. In addition, the measure contained limits on partisan gerrymandering and a ban on undisclosed dark money in elections.
Voting rights legislation was always going to clash with the filibuster when it came to the Senate. Filibuster rules require 60 votes to begin and end debate for most legislation before moving to a final vote. Since Democrats control just 50 votes and Republicans are almost universally opposed to voting rights legislation, the only way to win passage was to change the filibuster rules.
Early on, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared that “everything is on the table” in the effort to pass voting rights legislation. Schumer announced plans to use the so-called nuclear option of changing the Senate rules in the middle of a Senate session on a simple majority vote in order to alter the filibuster enough to allow voting rights to pass. This is what both the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did in 2013 and 2017, respectively, to eliminate the filibuster for judicial and executive branch nominations.
Schumer’s proposed filibuster rule change would require the filibustering minority to actually talk to block a bill while holding a minimum of 41 senators on the floor at any given time. When they ceased talking or failed to hold 41 senators on the floor, a simple majority could vote to pass the bill under consideration. This change would only apply to this one vote only.
“Isn’t the protection of voting rights and preventing their diminution more important than a rule in the Senate?” Schumer asked Wednesday in a speech aimed at Manchin and Sinema, with nearly every Democrat seated at their desks in a rare scene on the Senate floor.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), meanwhile, warned that a partisan filibuster rule change would “break the Senate,” dismissing Democrats’ calls to protect voting rights as “fake hysteria.” He went on to call Wednesday “in all likelihood the most important day in the history of the Senate as an institution.”
The proposed rules change was the closest Democrats got to Manchin’s supposed interest in restoring a “talking filibuster,” while providing a path for the bill to pass. However, Manchin drove the final nail in the coffin on that idea Wednesday after hours of lengthy speeches on the Senate floor, with many of his colleagues speaking passionately on behalf of acting to protect voting rights.
“Eliminating the filibuster would be the easy way out,” Manchin said, suggesting lawmakers focus on possible areas of agreement, such as reforms to the way electoral votes are counted. “I cannot support such a perilous course. ... It’s time we do the hard work to forge the difficult compromises that can stand the test of time.”
Placing a hand on his heart, Manchin then turned to his fellow Democrats and asked them to respect his opinion against pushing through rule changes on a partisan basis.
Throughout 2021, Manchin and Sinema stated their opposition to eliminating or weakening the filibuster. Manchin even announced his opposition to the House-passed voting rights bill, the For The People Act, in June.
But Democrats continued holding hope after Manchin agreed to negotiate a compromise voting rights bill with seven other senators that he said could win Republican support.
After co-writing the bill, Manchin then tried to pitch it to Republicans with no success. He also tried to get Republicans to support the House-passed John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the Voting Rights Act, but only gained one GOP co-sponsor, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Manchin’s heavy involvement in crafting and selling the voting rights bills led Democrats to believe that he would be open to potential filibuster changes when the time came. He even engaged in extended conversations with Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) about possible reform options.
But, in the end, Manchin remained opposed to changing the Senate rules without Republican support. Sinema also doubled down by announcing her opposition to filibuster reform in a speech on the Senate floor just moments before Biden arrived to pitch the Democratic caucus on it.
This doomed the push for voting rights legislation and consigns voters in the GOP-run states that passed restrictive election legislation to jump through extra hoops to register to vote and cast their ballots.
After Wednesday night, Democrats will be left to hopelessly pray that a Supreme Court packed with Trump-appointed conservatives, who just months ago gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for a second time in the past 10 years, strikes down these restrictive state election laws. Failing that, Democrats will have to “out-organize” those laws in 2022, 2024 and beyond.