The U.S. is again approaching a crucial point in our right to vote. The result will either be the biggest advance since the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964/65, or the biggest setback since the start of Jim Crow in the 1870s.
On one side are Republicans, who control most state legislatures and are using false claims of election fraud to enact an avalanche of voting restrictions on everything from early voting and voting by mail to voter IDs. They also plan to gerrymander their way back to a U.S. House of Representatives majority.
After losing the Senate and the presidency, they’re determined to win back power by rigging the rules against Democrats and especially Black and brown voters. As a lawyer for the Arizona Republican Party put it baldly before the Supreme Court last week, without such restrictions Republicans are “at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats”.
On the other side are Democrats, advancing the most significant reform legislation (since President Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts) – a sprawling 791-page For the People Act, establishing national standards for federal elections.
The proposed law mandates automatic registration of new voters, voting by mail, and at least 15 days of early voting. It bans restrictive voter ID laws and purges of voter rolls.
Studies suggest these changes would increase voter participation, especially by racial minorities. It also requires that congressional redistricting be done by independent commissions and creates a system of public financing for congressional campaigns.
The legislation sailed through the House. Not one Republican vote! The showdown will occur in the Senate, where Republicans are determined to kill it. With a razor-thin majority of 50 seats plus 1 (Vice President Kamala Harris). the bill doesn’t stand a chance in the Senate unless Democrats can overcome two big obstacles.
The first is the filibuster, requiring 60 votes to pass regular legislation.
The filibuster, ”talking a bill to death,” is not in the constitution. It’s a rule that now requires 60 Senators to stop the obstruction of voting on a bill that has historically been used against civil rights and voting rights bills.
But they face a second obstacle.
Two Democrats – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – have said they won’t vote to end the filibuster even with the Democrat’s 51 vote majority, presumably because they want to preserve their appeal to Republicans in their conservative states.
If Democrats fail to somehow enact the For the People Act, Republicans will send voting rights back 60 years.
There’s no excuse for Manchin and Sinema or any other Senate Democrat to allow Republicans to pull America backwards towards Jim Crow.
In 1964 preparing for the votes on the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, President Johnson used every tool at his disposal, “an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, reminders of past favors and future advantages,” reported Mary McGrory, former Washington Post reporter.
But all that may be unnecessary. President Biden, a former Senator who spent 36 years negotiating and working both sides of the aisle, will use those skills to help the Democratic Senators accomplish what’s in the best interests of the nation.
Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, recently offered several ways to fix the filibuster without scrapping it. One would be to simply lower the filibuster threshold to 55 votes instead of 60. Another would be to flip the way the rule works and require 40 senators to show up to stop a bill, instead of putting the burden on 60 to move it forward.
“The point is to restore the original idea of the filibuster — to foster more debate,” Ornstein said. “Right now, the burden is all on the majority. If you want more bipartisanship, it will increase if there’s an incentive to actually legislate.”
If President Biden wants to save the agenda that 80+ million citizens confirmed last November from Republican Mitch McConnell’s obstruction, then he may need to invite Senators Manchin and Sinema to the Oval Office, remind them that he shares their love of the Senate traditions and enlist them in a campaign to foster more bipartisan compromise — beginning with changes to the filibuster rule.
“The filibuster has to be more painful, it has become too easy, too comfortable,” Sen. Manchin has concluded. “I’m willing to look at any way we can, but I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority.”