How Democrats can keep the filibuster and advance voting rights

By Will Marshall, PPI President

This piece was first published in The Hill.

If you think American democracy is worth preserving, you owe Texas Democrats a shout-out. Over the Memorial Day weekend, they thwarted a Republican plot to make it harder for certain citizens of the Lone Star state to vote. These Americans, of course, tend to be Black, Latino, low-income and urban.

The Democrats’ dramatic walk-out from the Texas legislature prevented the Republican majority from ramming through a bill that would drag the state back to the bad old days of Jim Crow. But Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has vowed to bring lawmakers back into a special session for the express purpose of disenfranchising fellow Texans.

Having won a delaying action, Texas Democrats are appealing to their counterparts in Washington to stand up to what President Biden rightly called “an assault on democracy.” Congressional Democrats are more than willing to pass voting rights bills, but Senate filibuster rules stand in the way.

It would take 60 votes to shut down a GOP Senate filibuster of a national law preventing states from discriminating against certain kinds of voters. Democrats only have 50, and moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WVa.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) so far have stood firm against left-wing pressure to kill the filibuster.

They know that “going nuclear” on the minority party’s rights would likely scuttle hopes of building bipartisan support for any part of Biden’s agenda, bring partisan enmity to fever pitch, and could come back to haunt Democrats should they lose control of both the House and the Senate in next year’s midterm elections.

But while it might be a mistake to ditch the filibuster over mere policy differences, the right to vote is of a different order of magnitude. It is fundamental to our liberties and guaranteed in our Constitution. Voting is the self-correcting mechanism that keeps our experiment in democratic self-government from veering too far off course.

That’s exactly what happened in 2020, when the American people emphatically fired President Donald Trump. Instead of respecting and accepting the peoples’ verdict, Republican state lawmakers are keeping alive Trump’s “stolen election” legend as a pretext for vote-rigging bills aimed at entrenching them in office.

Democrats, however, don’t need to eliminate the filibuster altogether to confront this outrage. They already have set a precedent for suspending the filibuster in certain cases, such as judicial nominations. To counter the red state voter suppression, Democrats surely would be justified in changing Senate rules to embrace this simple principle: No filibustering of legislation aimed at protecting Americans’ basic right to vote.

This would lift the Republican assault on voting rights above the mire of reflexive negative partisanship, underscoring every citizen’s interest in ensuring their right to vote. And by reserving the filibuster for ordinary policy disputes, it would also preserve incentives for the kind of legislative bargaining and compromise that, in saner times, have served to temper tribal animosity in U.S. politics.

It’s also crucial that Democrats use the filibuster exemption to pass the right voting rights bill. There are two before Congress: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Democrats should rally behind the latter, named after the venerable civil rights champion from Georgia who died last year.

Exceeding 800 pages in length, For the People is a sprawling beast of a bill that combines protections for voting rights with more controversial provisions for political and campaign finance reform. Whatever its merits, the bill simply has too many moving parts and would be far harder to explain to the public than the more disciplined Lewis bill, which focuses on restoring provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court’s conservative minority struck down eight years ago.

As a practical matter, Manchin is opposed to the For the People bill. However, he’s proposed an even bolder version of the Lewis bill which would require the Justice Department to “pre-clear” election law changes by all 50 states, not just those with a noxious history of suppressing voting by Black citizens.

By limiting rather than killing the filibuster, and working to blend Manchin’s proposals and the House-passed Lewis bill, Senate Democrats might be able to persuade their colleague to drop his opposition to changes in filibuster rules. Let’s hope so, because while Senate rules shouldn’t allow narrow majorities to ride roughshod over minority parties, neither should procedural obstacles prevent Congress from safeguarding the right to vote.

Following other red states like Georgia and Florida, Texas Republicans seem determined to pass the most odious voter suppression law in the country. Only Congress can stop this perversely unAmerican drive to disenfranchise citizens, but Republicans under Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can be relied upon only to put their partisan will to power above their duty to the country.

That leaves it to Democrats to invoke the Constitution’s clear protections for the right to vote and stop the Republicans’ dirty war against U.S. democracy.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

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