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Democrats are about to swing and miss on voting rights again
But this time, the entire party — even Joe Manchin! — is united around a solid piece of legislation that makes it harder for Republicans to defend their anti-voter attitudes in next year’s midterms.
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The Senate is scheduled to vote tomorrow to advance the Freedom to Vote Act — the Democratic Party’s Plan B on comprehensive voting rights legislation — despite all indications that it, like its predecessor the For the People Act, will fail due to Republican obstruction.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, one of the cosponsors of the FTVA, called elections a “fundamental gear box of a democratic system” during a press call with reporters this morning and admitted he was “worried about the devaluing of elections” because one-third of all Americans and half of the Republican Party believes that the previous election was rigged. He added that he was voting to advance the bill in hopes to “pierce the consciousness” of his Republican colleagues, but was matter-of-fact in his acknowledgment that the chances of that happening are slim to none.
In a statement from the White House, President Biden, who spoke by phone with Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Alex Padilla of California, expressed support for the vote. (Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke with Sens. King, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Georgia’s other senator Jon Ossoff.) “The administration is continuing to press for voting rights legislation to safeguard our democracy from these historic threats to constitutional freedoms and the integrity of elections through legislation, executive actions, outreach, the bully pulpit and all other means available.” At today’s press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked if President Biden has talked to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to explore points of agreement on the issue but indicated the president has not done so and has no immediate plans to.
The Freedom to Vote Act would reform voter registration and voting access, election integrity and security, redistricting, and campaign finance. It would ensure automatic and same-day registration, vote-by-mail and early voting and limit the removal of voters from voter rolls. The FTVA would also establish Election Day as a federal holiday. And it would re-enfranchise individuals who have been convicted of a criminal offense to vote in federal elections while establishing a new criminal offense for conduct that hinders, interferes with or prevents another person from registering to vote or helping someone register to vote. The FTVA would also require states to conduct post-election audits for federal elections and prohibit campaign spending by foreign nationals and require additional disclosures and disclaimers on campaign-related fundraising, spending and political advertising.
Most urgently, the bill would prohibit the manipulation of congressional districts for partisan advantage (aka “gerrymandering”) and mid-decade redistricting. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott just signed into law a new congressional map that, in the words of Alexa Ura at The Texas Tribune, shore up the GOP’s dominance and yield little ground to the people of color who have driven the state's growth.” According to Sen. King, gerrymandered maps like the Lone Star State’s create too many safe districts wherein politicians can win the general election simply by winning the primary, which gives them the luxury of campaigning to their party’s base as opposed to the district’s entire electorate. And when those politicians become legislators, they’re hesitant to even engage with the other side on issues with bipartisan appeal because they’re afraid to face a primary challenger in the next election.
In addition to the aforementioned senators, who co-sponsored the bill, the FTVA was crafted by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a bane of existence for Democrats due to his perceived misalignment on the party’s jobs and families plan currently working its way through Congress. “The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and the Freedom to Vote Act is a step in the right direction towards protecting that right for every American,” Manchin said when the bill was introduced in September. “As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore peoples' faith in our Democracy and I believe that the commonsense provisions in this bill — like flexible voter ID requirements — will do just that.”
If you’re curious why, besides the attack on voting rights at the state level, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is bringing the FTVA up for a vote, I’ll resurface a point I made in this post from June: With Manchin's support, the Democrats are finally united around a meaningful piece of voting rights legislation for the first time since voters delivered both chambers of Congress and the White House to the party. This means Republicans can no longer hide behind the one Democratic vote as proof that the left can’t even mobilize its caucus in support of one of its signature legislative priorities. Republicans will again be on record as against a popular bill and Democrats will be able to campaign in the midterms next year as the party fighting against those who made it harder for you to vote. Add in the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure deal and Build Back Better Act and you’ve got the makings of a winning message going into what’s certain to be a competitive election map for Democrats.
We’re here because the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited certain jurisdictions from implementing any change affecting voting without receiving preapproval from the US attorney general of the US District Court for DC. In a Senate hearing in August, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said that the Justice Department blocked over 3,000 voting changes while the provision was in place, 60 percent of which were found to be intentionally discriminatory. “In addition to blocking discrimination, the deterrent effect of the preclearance requirement was undeniable.” Without the preclearance stipulation, Republican-controlled state legislatures can pass anti-voter laws that take root immediately without meeting their burden of proof that the new rules weren’t adopted with a discriminatory purpose or would not worsen the position of minority voters. As I wrote in August:
These laws cut early voting periods, place new and unnecessary restrictions to register or vote, eliminate or consolidate polling sites in communities of color, purge eligible voters from the rolls and impose limits on advocacy groups who seek to help voters participate in democracy.
On this morning’s press call, Sen. King seems especially concerned by the fact that many of these voter suppression bills empower state legislatures to override the will of voters who elect people with whom the minority disagrees. If that’s the case, then “nothing but power wins,” King said. If the vote to advance the FTVA fails, as it’s expected to tomorrow, the senator said Democrats would have to consider reforming the filibuster, a Senate procedure that’s enabled Republicans to block bills on voting rights, immigration, gun control, health care and more from becoming law. It’s also a tool the GOP has used to prevent the Senate from confirming several nominees put forth by President Biden to serve in federal courts, government agencies and diplomatic ambassadorships.
Supporters of the filibuster argue it protects the rights of the minority. But minority rights are already protected as proven by the fact that Rhode Island, the smallest state in the country has as many senators as California, the biggest. Others are worried that Republicans will use a weakened or eliminated filibuster to their advantage when they return to power. “Today’s obstruction can be tomorrow’s priceless shield,” King said.
But what most people don’t realize is how easy it is to filibuster a piece of legislation. A United States senator can stonewall without explaining their decision in public or private if they don’t want to and if enough of their colleagues follow suit, all of a sudden a supermajority is required to pass a bill. And even if the filibuster isn’t completely eliminated, there’s intensifying support for a carveout to pass voting rights, which King said Democrats would have to seriously consider if Republicans block the advancement of the FTVA tomorrow. Another option the senator floated was to shift the responsibility to the minority to round up 41 votes to block a bill instead of requiring a 60-vote supermajority to pass one.
What’s for sure is that when the vote fails, all eyes will return to President Biden, one of the Democratic Party’s most ardent defenders of the filibuster. The White House’s argument is that it takes two — in this case, the executive and legislative branches of government — to tango. “So, while [Biden] has taken executive actions in a lot of these areas to put in place positive change, in order to have a fundamental change that is going to make people’s lives better, that is going to fix broken systems, you need Congress to act,” Psaki said yesterday. “That’s how our system is set up, historically.”
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