My inbox quickly filled up with statements of support on Tuesday morning after Democrats unveiled the latest iteration of a federal bill that would drastically expand voting rights.
The bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, has been described as a “compromise”, hashed out over the summer by a group of Senate Democrats after Republicans filibustered an earlier version of it. But while the bill does get rid of some key things from the initial version, it still is pretty expansive. It would require states to offer at least 15 days of early voting, along with same-day registration, as well as automatic and online registration. It would enshrine new protections for local election officials and poll workers amid growing concerns about intimidation and partisan interference in their work. And it sets new criteria that states have to follow when they draw electoral districts to curb the practice of severely manipulating districts for partisan gain.
We’ve been here before. It’s no secret that the bill is probably dead on arrival in the US Senate as long as the filibuster, the rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation, remains in place. A handful of Democrats, led by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have vocally supported keeping the measure in place.
As I read through the cascade of statements praising the new bill, I was struck by how many of them coupled their enthusiasm with calls to eliminate the filibuster. It was a grim recognition of the quagmire Democrats have confronted since taking control of Congress in January: voting reform is impossible while the filibuster is in place.
So where do things go from here?
Despite the huge obstacle that the filibuster still poses, I do think this new bill is significant. First, it shows that Democrats aren’t willing to let voting reform go; by coming back so quickly with a new bill, they’re signaling that they are prepared to force a fight over the filibuster.
Second, Democrats are showing Republicans that they are willing to make concessions in their signature piece of legislation. They dropped a provision from the earlier version that would have required officials to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. They also got rid of a provision that would have required every state to set up independent commissions to draw districts. The new legislation also allows states to require identification to vote while also setting up a process for people who lack ID to vote. These will all up the ante on Republicans to negotiate in good faith.
Third, it’s significant that Manchin played an active role in crafting the bill and is now the one shopping it around to get Republican support. That support seems unlikely (“It is a solution in search of a problem, and we will not be supporting that,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said on Tuesday). If Manchin is unable to personally persuade Republicans to sign on, despite the concessions from Democrats, it will only increase pressure on him to revise his stance on the filibuster.
Joe Biden also has indicated a new willingness to pressure reluctant Democrats on their filibuster position.
‘All options are on the table’
Manchin said this week “the filibuster is permanent”. But there are a number of things Democrats could do short of getting rid of the rule entirely. They could carve out voting rights legislation from the filibuster, or lower the threshold needed to advance legislation down from 60 votes. They could also require anyone who wants to filibuster legislation to actually speak continuously on the Senate floor to delay legislation, an idea Biden has endorsed.
Whatever Democrats ultimately do, one thing is clear: it needs to happen quickly (Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, has vowed to hold a vote on the measure as soon as next week). States are already beginning the once-a-decade process of redrawing district lines, making it all the more urgent to get the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the bill in place.
“We are giving him the opportunity to do that with a bill that he supports and that he modified,” Schumer said of Manchin on Tuesday. “If that doesn’t happen, we will cross that bridge when we come to it. As I’ve said, all options are on the table.”
Thank you to everyone who wrote in last week with questions. You can continue to write to me each week at email@example.com or DM me on twitter at @srl and I’ll try and answer as many as I can.
Q: I’m originally from France, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not in support of any voting restrictions, however, we’ve always had to show our IDs in order to be able to vote in France, and it’s never really been a problem (I don’t think). So I’m wondering why ID requirements are such a big deal in the US to vote.
Unlike many European countries, the US doesn’t automatically issue a free identification card to its citizens. There are some experts I’ve spoken with who believe that if the US did automatically issue free ID cards, a voter ID requirement would be more tolerable. (You can read more on this idea in this recent piece in the Atlantic.)
Academic research on voter ID has shown mixed things on the effect it has on overall turnout. Nonetheless, courts in Texas and North Carolina have found in recent years that lawmakers have specifically enacted voter ID requirements intending to discriminate against minority voters.
In many cases, the key part of a voter ID measure is not whether ID is required, but what kinds of IDs are acceptable and how easy it is for someone to prove their identity and vote if they don’t have an acceptable ID. In Texas, for example, lawmakers infamously allowed people to vote using a state gun permit, but not a student ID. In North Carolina, lawmakers excluded IDs they knew Black people were more likely to possess from those acceptable to vote.
One last point: states often justify ID measures by saying they will offer free ID to anyone who cannot afford one. But that’s somewhat misleading. Even if there is no dollar amount attached to an ID, there’s a time cost for people to gather the documents they need to prove their identity and take the time to go to the DMV to do that.
Q: I’m an ignorant Brit with a simple question: how come fair and equally accessible voting isn’t guaranteed in the US constitution?
A lot of people are really surprised to learn there’s no guaranteed right to vote in the constitution. The Founding Fathers initially limited voting to a small group of people.
Later amendments to the constitution protect access to voting by outlining the reasons why government can’t block people from the ballot box. The 15th amendment, for example, says that government can’t block someone from voting “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. As concerns over voter discrimination rise, some scholars believe there should be a renewed push to add an affirmative right to vote to the constitution.