Democrats working on three tracks in response to Senate voting rights defeat
There isn’t really any other way to say it: Democrats suffered one of the biggest setbacks of Joe Biden’s presidency on Tuesday.
Republicans used the filibuster, the procedural maneuver that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation in the US Senate, to block Democrats’ huge voting rights bill from advancing to a debate on the floor. No one expected it to go any differently, since no Republican ever appeared likely to sign on to the bill. But now a bigger question looms: what happens next?
Democrats have pledged not to give up. “In the fight for voting rights, this vote was the starting gun, not the finish line,” Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said on the floor during Tuesday’s vote. Senate Democrats plan to hold a series of hearings in states like Georgia that have passed voting restrictions to highlight the need for federal legislation. Biden also promised more action next week. “We are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again – for the people, for our very democracy.”
It looks like the Senate will work on a compromise bill backed by Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat, who favors keeping the filibuster in place. Last week, Manchin circulated the outline of a proposal that would ban partisan gerrymandering, require automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices, and require at least two weeks of early voting.
But the proposal says little about protecting voting by mail, the target of many Republican-backed bills in the states this year, even though 46% of Americans voted by mail in 2020. Manchin’s bill would also require voter ID, does not mandate no-excuse absentee voting or ballot drop boxes, and would allow states to continue to disenfranchise people with felonies after they leave prison. The proposal says little about protections for voters with disabilities, only that it would “require states to promote access to registration and voting for persons with disabilities and older individuals”.
The Manchin compromise may be Democrats’ best hope for passing voting reforms, though civil rights groups are not aligned behind it. Even before the filibuster vote, more than 20 civil rights groups, including prominent ones like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Black Voters Matter, released a statement saying they objected to Manchin’s proposal, which they said was inadequate.
“If that’s going to be the starting point, then we’re guaranteed to wind up in a worse place,” Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told me. “We’re not going to let them move the goalposts on us. Our starting point is HR1, S1, the original provisions,” he added, referring to the original sweeping voting rights bill.
Democrats also appear likely to continue pushing legislation that would update a critical provision in 1965’s landmark Voting Rights Act. The provision, which was gutted by the supreme court in 2013, would require places with a history of voter discrimination to obtain pre-clearance before making changes to election procedures. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Senate Republican, said on Tuesday that she supported such a bill. While other Republicans have yet to say whether they would do so, there’s some optimism it might be more widely palatable.
Yet voting rights groups worry that merely passing this provision would not be enough. While it would provide protections against future discrimination, it would not undo many of the most harmful changes that have already passed.
Nate Cohn, a New York Times writer, has floated a third path for Democrats: a bill focused singularly on protecting election administrators from partisan interference. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both from Georgia, are preparing just such legislation amid concerns that interference is already happening in their state.
For all three of these proposals, the same problem remains: the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Vice-President Kamala Harris, projecting confidence about the fight ahead during a meeting with voting rights advocates on Wednesday, tacitly acknowledged the barriers that remain in place.
“The fact is our fight does not look very different than it did yesterday,” she said.
Also worth watching …
- The Republican-controlled oversight committee in the Michigan senate released a report on Wednesday that found little evidence of fraud in the state’s 2020 election.
- Jails in Wisconsin have widely differing, and sometimes vague policies, on how to facilitate voting for detained people who are eligible, according to a new report by the Wisconsin chapter of All Voting is Local, a voting group.
- Connecticut passed a law that will allow people with felony convictions on parole to vote, a move expected to affect as many as 4,000 people, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
- A wave of states have rolled back laws prohibiting people with felony convictions from voting. But confusion remains, and only a small fraction of those eligible have made it on to the voter rolls.