Last week, Senate Republicans again uniformly blocked Democrats’ attempt to begin debate on urgently needed voting rights legislation. The minority party’s filibuster of the Freedom to Vote Act—and their expected filibuster of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) in the coming days—are just two of several harmful blockades of voting rights bills over the past year, at a time when U.S. democracy is under increasing assault by partisan actors. With no other viable options left—and with President Joe Biden’s recent remarks signaling support for fundamental change of the filibuster rules—the Senate should expeditiously move to reform the arcane filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the VRAA with a simple majority vote.
Freedom to Vote Act
For the past year, Congress has been considering bold voting rights legislation that would help strengthen democracy and reduce corruption. In March, the House of Representatives passed the For the People Act (H.R.1). However, in the Senate, Republicans repeatedly blockaded any progress on parallel legislation, in part by using the Senate filibuster rules, which require a 60-vote supermajority—instead of a simple majority vote—to move forward on legislation.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) then spearheaded an effort with several other senators in the Democratic caucus to craft a balanced compromise reform package, the Freedom to Vote Act, partly in an endeavor to garner Republican support. This legislation, which is widely supported by Americans of all political persuasions, also incorporates feedback from state and local election officials, who would be responsible for implementing the bill’s provisions.
The Freedom to Vote Act has four main components: (1) It sets baseline national standards to protect and expand people’s right to vote; (2) it helps prevent election sabotage, making it harder for partisan officials to overturn valid election results; (3) it halts partisan gerrymandering, which is an urgently needed change because several states have already started their 10-year redistricting process; and (4) it amplifies voices of everyday donors and reduces the power of secret, dark money in elections.
John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
The VRAA, named for the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), would restore and strengthen the monumental Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRAA contains several provisions designed to protect voters against discriminatory anti-voting rules aimed at communities of color, including requiring jurisdictions with recent histories of discrimination to secure federal “preclearance” before altering their voting laws. The bill would also allow the U.S. Department of Justice and other stakeholders to more effectively challenge discriminatory voting laws. The VRAA is especially necessary after the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority gutted sections of the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder and its 2021 decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.
Together, these two pieces of legislation would set nationwide standards to protect the right to vote and help thwart anti-democratic laws passed by legislatures in at least 17 states.
Until recently, there was a long history of bipartisan support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its subsequent reauthorizations. The last reauthorization, in 2006, was passed with unanimous Senate approval. But on August 24, 2021, the House passed the VRAA along party lines, with no Republican support. Senate Democrats introduced similar legislation on October 5. On October 20, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he plans to attempt to bring the VRAA up for Senate floor consideration in the coming days. Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has announced his opposition to the VRAA, and thus far, only one Republican senator—Lisa Murkowski (AK)—has stated a willingness to consider the VRAA. Given current circumstances, it looks exceedingly likely that Senate Republicans will block the VRAA from moving forward, just as they did the Freedom to Vote Act.
Together, these two pieces of legislation would set nationwide standards to protect the right to vote and help thwart anti-democratic laws passed by legislatures in at least 17 states. These state laws are often designed to disadvantage communities of color and other historically underrepresented groups. The federal legislation would also reduce the chance that partisan election officials could sabotage the will of the people—a vital component as former President Donald Trump continues to spread disinformation about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election and has encouraged sham election audits in several states. Passage of these bills furthermore would help ensure fairer representation of everyday Americans, which could lead to Congress passing popular commonsense policies, such as more affordable health care, gun violence prevention, and racial justice.
Next steps for the Senate: Reform the filibuster
Refusal by Senate Republicans to even debate legislation to strengthen voting rights is particularly dangerous in light of Donald Trump’s perpetuation of the “big lie” that elections are rife with fraud. Their actions also provide implicit support for anti-voter bills passed by state legislatures—over the objections of pro-democracy lawmakers—by holding up federal legislation that would supersede these state laws.
The filibuster appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution.
This legislative blockade cannot stand. Others in the Senate, including Democrats and the two Independents caucusing with them, should exercise the only remaining available option: reform the filibuster rules.
The filibuster appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, as noted by former President Barack Obama in his eulogy for Rep. Lewis, the filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era, when it was chiefly used to block civil rights legislation. Over the past several decades, the Senate has amended its filibuster rules many times, passing more than 161 pieces of legislation from 1969 onward under exceptions to the filibuster rules, including huge tax cuts for the nation’s largest corporations and wealthiest Americans. The most recent filibuster exception was created just four years ago by then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell for confirmation of Supreme Court justices by a simple majority vote.
There are several filibuster reform options that Senate Democrats could consider. One is to require a talking filibuster with a related requirement that at least 41 senators in the minority party be present and collectively hold the floor continually. Another option would be a so-called carveout for legislation involving voting rights or democracy reforms.
Notably, moderate senators such as Sen. Manchin have previously supported filibuster reform. For example, in 2011, Manchin voted to eliminate the filibuster for motions to proceed to debate the substance of a bill and to require senators to engage in talking filibusters. Sen. Manchin has also declared that inaction is not an option for voting rights legislation. And Sen. Angus King—an Independent from Maine who is a longtime supporter of the filibuster rules—recently indicated that he supports reforming the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.
[We must] reform the outmoded and anti-democratic filibuster or witness the further degradation of democracy.
Each passing day without enactment of the Freedom to Vote Act and the VRAA carries risks to U.S. democracy. For example, it becomes increasingly difficult to prevent partisan gerrymandering that already is occurring in states across the country. Election administrators will also have less and less time to implement the Freedom to Vote Act’s robust provisions to make voting more accessible and secure for the 2022 election cycle—and to guard fair elections against partisan manipulation. And once enacted into law, the VRAA would help prevent oppressive voting measures from going into effect and restore voters’ ability to effectively challenge them.
With Senate Republicans again blocking progress on voting rights legislation, other senators face a moment of reckoning: reform the outmoded and anti-democratic filibuster or witness the further degradation of democracy. The arcane Senate filibuster rules, which have been amended many times before, cannot take misplaced priority over protecting the voting rights of Americans of all backgrounds and reducing corruption in the country’s political system.
Michael Sozan, a former U.S. Senate chief of staff, is a senior fellow on the Democracy and Government Reform team at the Center for American Progress.