Drawing battle lines

The battle being waged over voting rights in state legislatures and the US Congress has been too easily mischaracterized as a partisan fight. It is in fact an attack on our democracy.

Democratic lawmakers in Texas have done something not often seen in the chambers of state legislatures: they walked out — not just once, but twice — in order to stop a floor vote on Senate Bill 7 that would make it harder for eligible citizens to exercise their right to vote. The walk-outs meant that the legislature did not have a quorum to vote on the restrictive bill.

The protest by state Democrats brought attention to a dire national fight over voting rights. Seventeen Republican-controlled states have enacted new laws that hinder voter access in one way or another and in some cases introduce greater partisan control over how elections are run and votes are counted. Hundreds of similar bills have been proposed in nearly every state.

These laws, though, are being proposed strictly on the belief that they would benefit the Republican Party. The issue has largely been defined in the national press as a partisan struggle between Republicans and Democrats. Yet, the Texas Democrats understand that the stakes are much higher than inter-party conflict, and get to the very heart of our democracy.

Democrats knew the first walkout at the end of May might be a temporary victory at best. They didn’t have the votes to stall or stop a vote on the bill indefinitely, and Gov. Greg Abbot (R) almost immediately called for a special session to pass the bill or one similar. However, their actions sent a message to Congress and put pressure on the US Senate to act on voting rights.

Texas Democrats sought to embolden party leaders and elected officials at the national level to speak more fervently for stopping any effort to suppress the vote. President Joe Biden responded to SB 7 by calling it “wrong and un-American.” He further called on Congress to pass HR 1, the “For the People Act,” and HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which several voting rights advocates have identified as essential to staving off voter suppression tactics.

“In the 21st century, we should be making it easier, not harder, for every eligible voter to vote,” the president stated.

A Coordinated Opposition to Voting Rights

In the post-2020 political environment, many Republicans across the country and in Congress have given their unified consent to bills like SB 7 that limit voting options for eligible citizens, and have opposed any effort to reform elections at the national level.

This coordinated effort, which kicked off in Iowa and Georgia and has included Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas, and other notable battleground states, continues to rely on the lie about a stolen election as an excuse for making it harder to vote. Those behind this effort are unabashed about their true intentions.

Former President Donald Trump, who continues to say the 2020 election results were illegitimate and falsely claim there was widespread fraud, said back in 2020 that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if voting was made easier.

His statement was reminiscent of a remark by Heritage Foundation Co-Founder Paul Weyrich, who in 1980 said: “I don’t want everyone to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country, and they aren’t now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in elections quite candidly goes up, as the voting populous goes down.”

Arizona State Representative John Kavanaugh (R) further echoed these sentiments in March 2021 when he said, “[Republicans] don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote — but everybody shouldn’t be voting.” He added, “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”

And yet, the same Republicans who have supported limiting voter access to increase their party’s leverage have called the “For The People Act” – a bill that would expand voter options in elections – a Democratic “power grab.”

It is worth noting that HR 1 was not originally introduced in 2021, but in 2019 after a successful midterm election for Democrats. However, as the number of voting restriction laws increased in the first half of 2021, so did attention to HR 1. Advocates hope to make permanent election law changes made last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that led to record voter participation. Such changes include expanded access to mail-in ballots and at least two weeks of early voting in federal elections.

The bill most recently died in the Senate after not a single Republican voted to even let it go to debate. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which seeks to restore the mechanisms to challenge voter suppression laws under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), may be headed to a similar fate.

Key provisions of the VRA were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). However, the court invited Congress to enact provisions suited for modern times, which the John Lewis Act seeks to do.

Before Shelby, the VRA had strong bipartisan support. As recently as 2006, it was reauthorized by votes of 390 – 33 in the House of Representatives and 98 – 0 in the Senate. Yet, much has changed in the last 15 years. As the floodgates have opened for voter suppression laws, Sen. McConnell (R), who has the power to guide the actions of the GOP caucus, has decided that the John Lewis Act is “unnecessary.”

Deciding When and How to Push Back

In the current hyper-partisan political climate, restoration of national legislation and oversight is imperative to stopping voter suppression tactics at the state level.

Republicans’ united stand has left Democrats with few options. Given the stakes, one path that many Senate Democrats continue to weigh involves what is viewed as a dramatic change to how the upper chamber operates. Specifically, they seek ways to reform or eliminate the filibuster, which both parties have used in modern history to stall or kill an opposing party’s agenda.

However, obstacles within their own party remain; namely, opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Both have repeatedly asserted their support for keeping the filibuster.

A Brief History of the Filibuster

Contrary to common belief, the filibuster was not part of the Framers’ constitutional design. The first coordinated effort to block legislation happened in 1837, when legislators exploited the lack of rules on debate length to delay a vote on a bill. Still, use of the filibuster to obstruct the business of the Senate was limited until the 20th century, when it proved effective on matters related to civil rights, election laws, Senate appointments, and more.

  • In 1917, Woodrow Wilson demanded that the Senate invoke a rule to limit debate, called the cloture rule, so that “[a] little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own” could not upset the legislative process. A rule was set that allowed a two-thirds majority to cut off debate.
  • A coalition of Southern senators used the filibuster to block anti-lynching laws a number of times, including in 1922 and 1938.
  • In 1942, the filibuster was used against a bill that would have outlawed poll taxes in 8 Southern states where they were being used for federal elections.
  • South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest continuous filibuster after he spent 24 hours and 18 minutes filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
  • In 1975, the required number of senators to move a bill out of debate was reduced from two-thirds of the legislative body to three-fifths, similar to the requirement today.

Manchin has received the most attention because, unlike Sinema, he also indicated that he would not vote for the most recent election reform bill without some changes, and suggested that his own party was pursuing a purely partisan agenda.

“Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage.”

He added that national legislation must be the result of Republicans and Democrats coming together, and that members of his party should not be so shortsighted as to eliminate a tool like the filibuster to achieve their legislative ends, especially since they have defended it when it was under attack by Republican leaders like former President Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, when Manchin proposed a compromise bill in an attempt to garner bipartisan cooperation on voting rights, the GOP caucus said ‘no.’ Several members of his own party, on the other hand, including prominent voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, said they supported the compromise even though it included provisions that were unpopular with other Democrats, like a voter ID requirement.

The gap between the two parties has never been wider in Congress, but bridge-building requires cooperation on both sides. Finding common ground is all but impossible when one side publicly vows to put 100% of their focus on “standing up to this administration,” as McConnell has repeatedly done.

Expanding the Vote Supports Both Parties

Manchin’s comments on voting rights are accurate. The issue has become incredibly polarized. However, what divides the parties is not how best to empower and protect voting rights. It is instead a choice between party politics and the right of each citizen to vote.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Weyrich and Trump were wrong when they suggested Republicans can’t benefit from increased voter participation. Case in point is Kentucky, where the GOP majority grew to a supermajority under bipartisan election changes during the 2020 elections.

The Kentucky legislature approved a new law earlier this year that made voting a little easier by making some of those changes permanent. The bill also had the support of most state Democrats, who agreed that though the law wasn’t perfect, it was a step in the right direction.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) has criticized other GOP-controlled states for “shrinking access” at a time when election administrators have seen what happens when voters are given more options to cast a ballot. He said the GOP needs to “stop being scared of voters.”

“Let them vote, and go out and make the case,” he added.

In Oklahoma, Republicans expanded early voting in the general election. Vermont’s Republican governor signed into law a bill that requires an absentee ballot to be sent to every eligible voter. Louisiana’s GOP-controlled legislature also expanded early voting in presidential elections.

Great or small, these bills have taken steps toward expanding voter options in elections, and have done so with substantial bipartisan support. After all, these bills benefit voters, and supporting voters supports democracy.

Problem Addressed: Voting rights

Written by Shawn Griffiths

Published on July 19, 2021

Feature image: iStock 6kor3dos

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