Voting rights and Senate wrongs

The Hill
The Hill
© Greg Nash/Julia Nikhinson

It’s a tough time to be Chuck Schumer .

Faced with the pressing need to deliver on President Biden ’s 2020 campaign pledge to protect voting rights after a brutal vote Wednesday evening that saw Democrats’ best hope for reform fail, the Senate majority leader is practically out of options.

Schumer led two doomed votes that showcase just how dysfunctional our legislative branch has become. The first, held under the Senate’s 60-vote requirement, washed up on the rocks in a party-line vote. The second, Schumer’s ambitious effort to suspend the filibuster and pass voting rights protections with a bare majority, fell after Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) made good on their promises to honor

Senate institutions above the core need for a free and fair election process.

Schumer has exhausted the filibuster-bound U.S. Senate’s parliamentary options, but that only worsens the divide within his party over the importance of restoring voting rights provisions stripped from the Voting Rights Act by the conservative-majority Supreme Court. Without substantive election and voter protections, Democrats must face down heavily gerrymandered and voter-suppressed electoral maps not just in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections but for a decade to come.

One fact is clear: There were no stirring appeals to statesmanship or democracy capable of dislodging Manchin, Sinema or the 50 Republicans who refused to even allow a topic as central to our democracy as voting rights to be debated on the Senate floor. That isn’t for want of trying: Over the past week, Democrats have offered some of their most impassioned and blistering speeches in defense of the democratic process.

But who is listening?

Not Republicans, who have unanimously embraced the rising tide of illiberalism energized by former President Trump ’s marathon campaign of post-election grievances. In fact, the Senate’s debate over the combined Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act has exposed a GOP willing to cast aside reality in order to justify an all-out offensive against the free and fair vote.

Take Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who derided Democrats’ proposal as a “partisan takeover of our elections,” while complaining that the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act “requires states to allow felons to vote.” But there’s a glaring error in Romney’s logic: The Democratic bill does indeed restore voting rights to felons who have served their time and been released. So does the state of Utah. Romney is so eager to join the GOP in its anti-voter firing squad that he seemingly never thought to check the laws of his own state.

What you will hear from Republicans is the comforting story of how the GOP of over a century ago once stood firm in support of voting rights. There is a reason these stories are always told in the past tense: Not a single Republican senator serving today would break bread with those GOP lawmakers of the past. That’s because, as former Trump administration adviser Justin Clark admits, modern Republicans have “always” relied on voter suppression to artificially increase their voting power.

“Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to keep people from voting,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) snapped. “Why would we?” Grassley was being rhetorical, but the question merits a serious answer. No one has ever said Republicans aim to restrict the vote for everyone. But as Ohio’s Supreme Court made clear in a 4-3 decision last week rejecting the state’s extremely GOP-skewed new congressional districts, Republican lawmakers were shockingly effective at restricting voting in communities that skewed Democratic.

If Republican opposition is a headache for Schumer and Senate Democrats, the gleeful obstinacy of Manchin and Sinema is infuriating. On Tuesday, Manchin dug further into his pro-filibuster position, telling reporters he welcomes a Democratic primary effort in 2024.

"I've been primaried my entire life,” Manchin told reporters ahead of a meeting with fellow Democrats. “That would not be anything new for me.” In a sign of the increasing Democratic divisions to come, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voiced his support for recruiting mainstream Democrats to challenge both Manchin and Sinema.

Manchin and Sinema do not represent the position of most Democrats, or the position of most Americans more broadly — who say it is somewhat or very important that Congress pass a voting rights bill as soon as possible. Instead, Manchin and Sinema represent a lonely hyper-minority position in support of keeping the filibuster — and damning any chance of correcting the increasing illiberalism forced on our electoral process by red-state legislatures.

It is unfortunate for the country and for our democratic future that Manchin and Sinema seem chiefly concerned about their own political futures while our country suffers a crisis of faith in its own democratic institutions. This moment requires the political courage to admit to and address generational wrongs intended to suppress and make unrepresentative our electoral system. Instead, our Senate is hamstrung by the small, self-interested thinking of two Democrats and every sitting Republican.

Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow

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