UPDATE (Jan. 19. 2022, 9:00 p.m. ET): After hours of debate on the Senate floor, Democratic leaders failed to break the GOP's voting rights blockade and advance the two voting rights bills via cloture vote.
The moment of truth on voting rights has come.
The Senate this week finally took up its debate on voting rights legislation. Republicans were not able to use the filibuster to block this vital deliberation — as they did four times last year. Democrats have achieved this because Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., used a little-known procedure that allowed the Senate to send the new voting rights bill — passed in the House last week — directly to the Senate floor.
Former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen set off a disastrous domino effect at the federal, state and local levels.
The new legislation combines the two major voting rights measures: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. All 50 Democratic and independent senators served as co-sponsors of the two bills. Though news analysts and commentators have declared the legislative fight over before it started, Senate supporters must do whatever it takes to pass the legislation, just as Senate supporters did to pass momentous civil rights legislation in the past. This battle is not over until it is over.
These protections are crucial — state legislatures passed a wave of voter suppression and election sabotage laws last year, and even more of these laws are expected in 2022.
Former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen set off a disastrous domino effect at the federal, state and local levels. Americans are now being regularly fed lies about election integrity — lies by elected officials, GOP leaders and Republican senators. On top of these lies are more layers of inaccuracies, falsehoods and myths that add to the confusion.
The Senate’s key voting right bill has majority support, but it will require a modification of the filibuster rules — something that has routinely been done more than 160 times since 1969. The support of a simple majority is all that is needed to pass this modification, but Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., continue to oppose modifying the rules. Without their support, historic voting rights legislation will fail.
Yet, just last month, Manchin and Sinema had no trouble voting to modify the filibuster rules to allow debt ceiling legislation to pass by a majority vote.
Manchin and Sinema insist they support voting rights. But if they maintain their current position, they are essentially supporting every state voter suppression law enacted last year, which the Senate bill would override. They are also supporting every state law that empowers partisan GOP election officials to rig the outcomes of federal elections.
In fighting for the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 to overcome Jim Crow laws, the bill’s supporters recognized it was of overriding importance to the country. They forced opponents to filibuster for 60 days before they finally broke the filibuster and passed the legislation.
Sen. Merkley: There’s no bigger issue than defending the ballot boxJan. 18, 202208:16
If opponents of today’s voting rights legislation want to block it by a filibuster, they should be forced to actually filibuster — take the Senate floor and talk — as the Civil Rights Act opponents were forced to do in 1964. Meanwhile, proponents must use the debate to demonstrate to the nation the seminal importance of winning this fight.
Trump’s dangerous, incessant Big Lie has, in the days, weeks and months since the 2020 election, fostered other deceits and fantasies — from voter suppression laws disguised as “election integrity” measures to a GOP bait-and-switch scheme that uses talk of reforming the Electoral Count Act to distract from and kill voting rights legislation. Here are some of the biggest:
Republican legislatures are passing new voting laws in the name of ‘election integrity’
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The 2020 presidential election had record turnout without a shred of evidence that there was any impactful fraud. Top Trump government officials found that the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history.”
But this has not stopped Republican-controlled state legislatures from citing “election integrity” to justify laws designed to suppress voting. These laws make it much harder to vote by mail and early in person — the two keys to 2020’s huge turnout.
These new state laws clearly appear aimed to deter key Democratic constituencies, including people of color, urban voters and the young, from voting.
Filibuster rules are inviolate
The filibuster rules have been changed routinely.
True, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., widely recognized as the master of the Senate rules, never supported eliminating the filibuster. But he strongly advocated changing the filibuster rules when needed, saying they “must be changed to reflect changed circumstances.”
In the 1970s, Byrd twice played the lead role in doing just this. He also played the central role in creating a major exception that continues today: the budget reconciliation process.
Last month’s vote to allow an increase in the debt ceiling to pass the Senate by a majority vote was just one more example of how common these exceptions have become.
Surely the right of every eligible American to vote in a fair election is, if anything, more crucial.
The filibuster protects the rights of the Senate minority
This may once have been the case, but today Republicans have weaponized the filibuster for politically partisan purposes.
Led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Republicans have repeatedly used the filibuster to paralyze the Senate to block Democratic initiatives for political, not policy, reasons.
During the Obama administration, McConnell led his Republican colleagues in using the filibuster more than ever before. McConnell made his partisan purpose clear: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Under President Joe Biden, McConnell looks to be continuing his practice: “One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”
McConnell’s habitual partisan use of the filibuster has been the key to making the Senate a dysfunctional institution today. This is precisely the kind of “changed circumstances” that Byrd said call for a revision of the filibuster rules.
Reforming the Electoral Count Act, rather than protecting voting rights, is the way to go
McConnell’s newfound interest in “considering” reform of the Electoral Count Act is a classic bait-and-switch designed to kill voting rights legislation. Senate Republicans have previously shown little, if any, interest in addressing the issue.
Though the electoral count process does need to be repaired, repairing it would not be a substitute for the pending voting rights legislation. It would do nothing to override the 34 voter suppression and election sabotage laws passed in 2021 — with many more under consideration in legislatures this year.
The Electoral Count Act applies only to presidential elections, not congressional contests. It does nothing to protect the right to vote and nothing to prevent partisan election officials from rigging the outcomes of elections.
Biden went to the heart of the voting rights battle last week when he said, “We have no option but to change the Senate rules.”
The decision senators make will determine whether our democracy and the right to vote will be preserved — or whether Trump’s Big Lie will continue to contaminate the country.