Senate Republicans again blocked a sweeping voting rights bill on Wednesday, a move that will significantly increase pressure on Democrats to do away with the filibuster, a Senate rule that has stymied the most significant priorities in Congress.
The vote was 49-51 along party lines (Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, switched to vote no at the last minute in a procedural maneuver that will allow him to bring up the bill again for a vote). Because the filibuster requires 60 votes to proceed, Republicans succeeded in blocking the measure.
The bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, would impose significant new guardrails on the American democratic process and amount to the most significant overhaul of US elections in a generation. It would require every state to automatically register voters at motor vehicle agencies, offer 15 consecutive days of early voting and allow anyone to request a mail-in ballot. It would also set new standards to ensure voters are not wrongfully removed from the voter rolls, protect election officials against partisan interference, and set out clear alternatives people who lack ID to vote can use at the polls.
Speaking on the Senate floor after the vote, the majority leader, Chuck Schumer, criticized Republicans for opposing the measure and strongly hinted Democrats would move to change the filibuster rules around voting rights. The right to vote, Schumer said, was unlike other issues the Senate deals with. “It isn’t about regular old politics,” he said.
“Senate Republicans blocking debate today is an implicit endorsement of the horrid new voter suppression and election subversion laws pushed in conservative states across the country,” he added. “What we saw from Republicans today is not how the Senate is supposed to work.”
Schumer said he was prepared to call for a similar vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a separate measure that would restore a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act, as soon as next week.
It also includs a slew of new campaign finance regulations and outlaws the pervasive practice of manipulating district lines for severe partisan advantage, a process called gerrymandering.
The provisions are a pared-back version of an earlier voting rights bill that Republicans blocked from a vote in June. Republican senators are likely to block the bill using the same filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to advance the legislation to a final vote. Meanwhile, there have been demonstrations outside the White House in recent weeks, and several activists have been arrested while speaking out in favor of the bill, including 25 arrests on Tuesday.
While most Democrats in the Senate favor getting rid of the filibuster, at least for voting rights legislation, the blockade will put immense pressure on two of the most significant remaining Democratic holdouts, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. There will be particular scrutiny on Manchin, who personally helped write the revised bill and has been seeking GOP support for it. It’s not yet clear if a lack of Republican support for any kind of compromise could force Manchin to finally support some kind of change to the filibuster but activists have been heartened by a letter he issued earlier this year in which he said “inaction is not an option” around voting rights.
Democrats are pushing the reforms at a particularly perilous moment for American democracy. Nearly three dozen bills were enacted in 19 states from January until the end of September, according to a tally by the Brennan Center for Justice. There have been more than 425 bills introduced with provisions that make it harder to vote. There are also growing concerns about Republican efforts to wield more influence over local election officials in certain states, which could wreak havoc in future elections.
The Republican National Committee chair, Ronna McDaniel, said that the Democratic bill would amount to a “federal takeover” of elections, a prominent GOP talking point against the bill. While the US constitution gives states the authority to set the rules for elections, it also explicitly gives Congress power to override those rules.
“The ‘Freedom to Cheat’ Act is another federal overreach from power-hungry Washington Democrats who have no business dictating to states how to manage their own elections. This new proposal is fundamentally the same as Democrats’ previous failed attempts to take over state elections. While Democrats continue to try and federalize our elections, Republicans are working to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” she said in a statement.
The Rev Raphael Warnock, the Georgia Democrat who helped write the bill, pledged Democrats would continue to push forward to pass it.
“I have long maintained that voting rights is more important than preserving any Senate procedural rule,” he said in a statement. “As crushing voter suppression proposals sweep across the nation, undermining access to the ballot for countless Americans, Congress cannot stand idly by and allow the reckless obstruction of some to stand in the way of securing voting rights for the many.”
There is pressure to immediately pass voting rights legislation because states are in the middle of the once-per-decade process of redrawing district maps. Absent new protections, new congressional and state legislative districts across the country could be unfairly tilted towards Republicans for the next decade. The GOP is also well positioned to take control of the US House of Representatives in 2022.
The bill is one of two critical pieces of voting rights legislation Democrats have championed. The other is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would set a new formula that would restore federal oversight of elections to certain places and specific practices. That bill has also passed the House and is waiting for a vote in the Senate.
Joe Biden has offered full-throated support for both bills, but has not been willing to publicly pressure Manchin or Sinema on the filibuster. The White House is facing pressure from some civil rights groups who believe it is not being aggressive enough in pushing for the bills.
The White House released a statement supporting passage of the bill on Monday, but said little about what it would do if Republicans blocked it.
“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,” the White House said in a statement on Monday.