In March 2021, before the Senate held its first hearing on the For the People Act, the Democrats’ sweeping democracy reform bill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told me that her party had a “once-in-a-century moment to protect people’s right to vote.”
But that historic opportunity to pass voting rights legislation is rapidly disappearing. And many Democrats and voting rights advocates are growing increasingly frustrated with the Biden Administration’s lack of urgency and prioritization concerning threats to democracy, as Republicans across the country aim to consolidate their power for at least a decade to come through brazen gerrymandering and voter suppression laws.
On Wednesday, the Senate will vote on the Democrats’ new voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act (a retooled version of the For the People Act), but when Republicans unanimously oppose it that will mark the third time this year that the GOP has blocked a voting rights bill from reaching the Senate floor.
“Failure is not an option,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after the House passed the For the People Act in March and it was introduced in the Senate. But failure is now the most likely outcome, unless Democrats quickly devise a strategy and reach a consensus on how to overcome Republican obstruction and the White House puts its full political capital behind reforming the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, which many Democrats and voting rights advocates say President Biden has failed to do.
“There’s nothing more important than saving our democracy, which faces its greatest test since Jim Crow and is on its last breath,” says freshman Democrat Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York, who wrote a key provision of the Freedom to Vote Act with Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) that would provide a constitutional right to have your ballot counted. “The party of Donald Trump, the party of insurrection, will do whatever it takes to disenfranchise its way back into power.”
In the first nine months of the year, more than 425 new voting restrictions were introduced in 49 states and 33 new laws passed in 19 states to make it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice—the greatest rollback of voting access since the end of Reconstruction.
Republican-controlled states like Texas have already begun enacting heavily gerrymandered maps that will help them retake the House in 2022 and lock in anti-democratic power at the state level for the next decade, in part by denying fair representation to voters of color, the same targets of voter suppression efforts.
Inspired by Donald Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen election, nearly a dozen states have enacted new laws to undermine fair elections and Republicans motivated by “stop the steal” conspiracy theories are running to take over election machinery at all levels of government, promising to overturn future elections if their side doesn’t win.
“The single biggest issue,” Trump said in Iowa last week, “is talking about the election fraud of 2020 presidential election.” And he’s already planning to nationalize his voter suppression crusade if he regains the presidency in 2024, through legitimate or illegitimate means.
Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when Biden was inaugurated, but Trump and his allies were just getting started with their efforts to undermine democracy. Just because the first coup failed doesn’t mean the next attempt won’t succeed.
This has all the makings of a constitutional crisis, but Democrats have done nothing to stop it. The Freedom to Vote Act would counter many of the GOP’s anti-democratic tactics by expanding voting access through policies like automatic and Election Day registration, two weeks of early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting nationwide; banning partisan gerrymandering; and protecting the right to have your ballot counted. But voting rights advocates are now shouting from the rooftops that time is running out to pass it and, if they don’t do so soon, Republicans will do everything they can to rig the political system in their favor and Democrats will likely lose their majorities as a result, becoming powerless to reverse the extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, and election subversion.
This isn’t just a story of Republican obstruction, but also a series of missteps by Democrats.
For months they struggled to get all 50 Democrats to support the same voting rights bill. Though Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) co-sponsored the For the People Act in the last Congress, under heavy lobbying from conservative dark money groups like Heritage Action for America, he announced in June that he opposed the bill, writing that “partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy.” He also made clear that he would “not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”
That set up a double standard: GOP-controlled states were quickly passing new voter suppression laws on party-line, simple majority votes, but Democrats could not protect voting rights unless they assembled a 60-vote supermajority, essentially giving Mitch McConnell veto power over any pro-democracy legislation.
Democrats instead negotiated for months with Manchin to craft a new voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, that preserves many aspects of the For the People Act with some modifications, while Republicans in states like Texas plowed ahead with new voter suppression bills. When the Senate left for its August recess, Schumer promised that voting rights legislation would be its “first matter of legislative business” for September, but when the Senate reconvened in the fall, infighting over the Democrats’ infrastructure bill and reconciliation plans, combined with a looming crisis over the debt ceiling, prevented a vote on the Freedom to Vote Act.
Though the party now has Manchin on board for the new bill, Democrats still have no strategy for passing it, since Manchin and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have been steadfast that they will not vote to reform the filibuster or create a special exception to it to pass voting rights legislation. “I can’t imagine a carve-out,” Manchin said on CNN in August.
It’s possible that Manchin and Sinema could never be persuaded to change their views on the filibuster, but voting rights advocates are exasperated that the White House hasn’t made voting rights a bigger priority or laid out a plan to reform the filibuster that might sway the recalcitrant Democrats. (Seventy percent of Americans support the Freedom to Vote Act, according to a recent Data for Progress poll, but it can be blocked by 41 GOP senators representing just 21 percent of the country.)
For months, the Biden administration prioritized economic issues, like the infrastructure bill, over voting rights legislation. Biden only mentioned voting rights at the end of a long speech before a joint session of Congress in April and did not speak in favor of the For the People Act when it came up for a vote in June. By the time the president finally gave a major speech about voting rights in Philadelphia in July, 18 states had already passed 30 new voter suppression laws, and though he called passage of the For the People Act a “national imperative,” he never mentioned the filibuster in his speech.
Though Biden admitted in prior remarks that the filibuster was being “abused in a gigantic way” and agreed with former President Barack Obama that it was a relic of Jim Crow, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden continued to support it. “The president’s view continues to be aligned with what he has said in the past, which is that he has not supported the elimination of the filibuster because it has been used as often the other way around,” Psaki said on July 12.
That same day, Democratic members of the Texas legislature fled to DC to block a voter suppression bill by denying Republicans a quorum and to lobby Democrats to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights, but Biden never met with them despite pleas for him to do so. “He won’t meet with us on Zoom like this, and I’m trying to be tactful, but I don’t know how else to say it, man,” state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond of Laredo told Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Austin during a conversation over Zoom. “I’m just pissed off at this point. He doesn’t give us the respect the way you have.” (They met with Vice President Kamala Harris, who Biden put in charge of voting rights issues, instead.)
In September, Rolling Stone reported that Biden had told Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he was ready to lobby Manchin and Sinema to support a voting rights exception to the filibuster, but Biden has not embraced that position publicly and it’s unclear if he’s lobbied for it behind the scenes. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)
“It is a scandal that the White House has not yet taken a public position on getting rid of the filibuster or otherwise reforming the filibuster,” Jones says.
There are signals the White House might be warming to filibuster reform. On Monday, in response to a question at the White House briefing about the administration’s lack of urgency on voting rights, Psaki said: “Are [Republicans] going to play a role in making it easier and more accessible to vote? Are they going to protect this fundamental right, or are they going to continue to be obstreperous, to use a word the President has used in the past, and put Democrats in a position where there is no alternative but to find another path forward?”
What is clear is that the administration has not lobbied Manchin, Sinema, or other members of Congress to support voting rights legislation or used the bully pulpit with the same urgency and intensity they’ve devoted to issues like the infrastructure bill, Build Back Better Act, and raising the debt ceiling.
“It’s undeniable Biden has not used the full force of his office for voting rights like he has for other issues, like infrastructure and Build Back Better,” says Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, who was arrested outside the White House two weeks ago protesting the need for legislation protecting voting rights. (On Tuesday, 25 more voting rights activists were arrested outside the White House in a similar protest.)
A case in point: on Wednesday, the same day the Senate is voting on the Freedom to Vote Act, Biden is traveling to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to discuss the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills—a clear sign of where the White House’s priorities are.
On October 1, Psaki told reporters that the administration’s legislative team had held 300 calls or meetings with members of Congress and their staffs in support of the spending bills over the last month. “There haven’t been 300 meetings on voting rights,” Albright says.
Some Democrats believe that the blockage of the Freedom to Vote Act will not be the end of the process, but simply the beginning of the last stage to pass it. It was always going to take months of GOP obstruction and internal negotiations to give Manchin the space to change his position on the filibuster, they say. “Now the natural, reasonable next step is for Joe Manchin, after failing spectacularly to get ten Republicans in the Senate of good conscience to sign on to the Freedom to Vote Act, to conclude that we must make an exception to the filibuster for purposes of passing this legislation,” says Jones.
But there’s also no evidence that Manchin or Sinema will ever change their positions on the filibuster. Unlike most other Democrats, they view the filibuster not as an impediment to democracy, but as integral to its functioning. “The filibuster is the only thread we have in America to keep democracy alive and well,” Manchin said on October 7.
While voter suppression and election subversion have become the central organizing principles of the GOP under Trump, some top Democrats continue to treat the protection of democracy as a side issue, worthy of a speech or a vote here or there, but not as the most pressing challenge of our time.
There are eerie parallels now to the end of Reconstruction, when insurrectionist Democrats (then the party of white supremacy) used every means necessary to retake control of the state and federal governments, while accommodationist Republicans (then the party of civil rights) appealed to bipartisan unity and supported the filibuster to block voting rights legislation, leading to decades of Jim Crow.
That’s why voting rights advocates are sternly warning Democrats that their own legacy, not to mention democracy itself, is at risk if they fail to pass voting rights legislation.
Albright predicts that a combination of GOP efforts to manipulate the democratic process, through tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression, combined with depressed enthusiasm from the Democratic base if the Senate fails to pass voting rights legislation, will cost the party their majorities in both houses of Congress.
That, in turn, could plunge the country deeper into a constitutional crisis, with Republicans attempting to impeach Biden and laying the groundwork not to certify the election results if a Democrat wins the presidency again in 2024. “The people who don’t want to certify free and fair elections,” says Jones, “will regain control of the federal government. They will make it harder for representative government to ever exist moving forward.”
That’s why there’s much more at stake on Wednesday than one procedural vote.
As Beto O’Rourke told me a few weeks ago: “If we stand on the principle of the filibuster, and deny ourselves the ability to effectively fight back and save this democracy, I really do fear we lose it forever.”