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Analysis

The Senate’s Moment of Truth on Democracy Reform

The Freedom to Vote Act would set desperately needed standards to protect democracy.

Last Updated: October 20, 2021
Published: October 19, 2021

UPDATE: On Octo­ber 20, Senate Repub­lic­ans voted to block debate on the Free­dom to Vote Act and prevent the bill from receiv­ing a floor vote.

On Wednes­day a vote will occur in Congress that has seri­ous implic­a­tions for our demo­cracy. 

The Senate will vote on whether or not to begin debate on the Free­dom to Vote Act, a crit­ical step toward passing this land­mark legis­la­tion. It was craf­ted by lawmakers includ­ing Sens. Joe Manchin, Amy Klobuchar, and Charles Schu­mer. In response to the wave of anti-voter attacks in the states, it estab­lishes a signi­fic­ant set of new national stand­ards and reforms to make our demo­cracy work better for all.

In 2020, despite the pandemic, and despite voter suppres­sion, we had the highest turnout since 1900. The elec­tion was secure and safe. It was a remark­able achieve­ment. The response: Trump’s Big Lie, an insur­rec­tion driven by that lie, and now a wave of new state laws also driven by that lie.

Nine­teen states have passed 33 laws making it harder to vote. State and local elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors face viol­ent threats and intim­id­a­tion for their public service, as Repub­lican-controlled legis­lat­ors try to rig elec­tion rules to assure their control at the state and federal level. And in both Demo­crat- and Repub­lican-controlled states across the coun­try, partis­ans are draw­ing maps that lock in their party’s control in a way that too often discrim­in­ates along racial, ethnic, and partisan lines. 

The Free­dom to Vote Act would stop this voter suppres­sion and gerry­man­der­ing, cold.

It creates national stand­ards for voting access in federal elec­tions that will neut­ral­ize many of the restrict­ive voting laws passed in the states. It mandates early voting, no-excuse mail voting, an Elec­tion Day holi­day, and protec­tions for voters with disab­il­it­ies to make voting as conveni­ent as possible. 

It also protects the free and fair admin­is­tra­tion of our elec­tions. The bill would prevent the politi­cized removal of elec­tion offi­cials as well as safe­guard them from partisan intim­id­a­tion and harass­ment during the elec­tion process. And to prevent partisan elec­tion manip­u­la­tion, the Free­dom to Vote Act sets uniform rules for vote count­ing nation­wide. 

The bill reforms the redis­trict­ing process, too, which is ongo­ing all across the United States right now. The Free­dom to Vote Act bans partisan gerry­man­der­ing in congres­sional redis­trict­ing and sets strong, uniform rules for congres­sional map draw­ing. The bill also increases protec­tions for communit­ies of color in the redis­trict­ing process and allows for discrim­in­at­ory or gerry­mandered maps to be chal­lenged in court quickly and fixed. If this legis­la­tion is passed soon, it would prevent the worst gerry­manders from taking effect. 

Now, for the first time, a clear major­ity of the Senate — all 50 Demo­crats and Vice Pres­id­ent Kamala Harris — support this bill. But it is meet­ing intense resist­ance from Repub­lican senat­ors, who don’t want to even debate the bill, much less work toward passing a bill both sides can agree upon. As Senate Major­ity Leader Schu­mer said on Monday, if we’re going to protect our demo­cracy, “Our Repub­lican colleagues must agree to come to the table first. They should agree to let the Senate begin debate.” 

The vote tomor­row will be a test for the Senate. But more, it will be a test for our demo­cracy and our lead­ers.

If the bill is blocked, the story should not be “Demo­crats in disar­ray” but “Repub­lican obstruc­tion.”

Pres­id­ent Biden has said we face the greatest threat to our demo­cracy since the Civil War. Strong words. But unfor­tu­nately, so far, not matched by an intense, sustained, and focused atten­tion on how we can strengthen our demo­cracy against these attacks. A Wash­ing­ton Post reporter asked me if we were “cautiously optim­istic” the White House would engage more deeply. I replied that we are “anxiously optim­istic.” 

I worked in a White House for seven years, includ­ing as Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s chief speech­writer. I know that pres­id­ents can’t magic­ally produce legis­lat­ive action. Even the use of the bully pulpit rarely sparks a wave of public demands for change. But pres­id­ents can do a lot — and at key moments. The “soul of Amer­ica” is at stake.