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Voting Rights Deserve a Majority Vote, Too

Two bills supported by a Senate majority have hit a wall of Republican obstruction. There’s an answer, as we saw in the past few days.

December 11, 2021

This week, the Senate figured out how to work around the fili­buster to raise the debt ceil­ing by a major­ity vote. Yes, lawmakers said, there are Senate rules and prac­tices, but when the moment demands, key legis­la­tion needs to come to a vote.

Another crisis demands a similar response: the concer­ted effort nation­wide to sabot­age our elec­tions. Vote suppres­sion, gerry­man­der­ing, intim­id­a­tion of elec­tion offi­cials, and the whole­sale theft of elec­tions by partisan state legis­latures all threaten our demo­cracy. Congress has the power to stop this, if it has the polit­ical will to do so.

The For the People Act (FTPA)* and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act (VRAA) passed the House this year. The only remain­ing obstacle is the Repub­lican minor­ity, obstin­ately wield­ing a fili­buster to prevent even debate on the VRAA and the Free­dom to Vote Act, comprom­ise legis­la­tion that includes key provi­sions from the FTPA and more. Once Congress passes these, Pres­id­ent Biden stands ready to sign. Where’s the work­around for voting rights?

Remem­ber, the fili­buster is not in the Consti­tu­tion. In fact, the Framers knew well the dangers of a super­ma­jor­ity require­ment. That’s what they had during the Articles of Confed­er­a­tion years, and they saw how it can grind govern­ment to a halt.

For much of the coun­try’s history, the fili­buster was used rarely, but was deployed by South­ern defend­ers of segreg­a­tion to stop voting rights and civil rights bills. Over time lawmakers frequently changed the rules and prac­tices. In 1975, senat­ors reduced the number of votes required to end debate.

But in the past quarter century, partis­ans have begun to fili­buster, well, everything, and to do it simply by rais­ing an objec­tion rather than talk­ing into the night. The result, effect­ively, has been a 60-vote require­ment for legis­la­tion. That’s unwork­able. It gives a minor­ity faction the power to block any action. Rather than spur­ring comprom­ise, it drives polar­iz­a­tion. 

So the Senate has carved out excep­tions or created work­arounds. Today, a major­ity vote is used to confirm Supreme Court justices, lower court judges, and exec­ut­ive branch offi­cials. A major­ity can pass the budget recon­cili­ation bill, as we all now know. But it’s not only these high profile topics. Trade agree­ments pass by a major­ity vote. So do milit­ary base clos­ings. In fact, 161 excep­tions to the 60-vote require­ment have been created by rules or stat­ute between 1969 and 2014.

The ironic result, in fact, is that just about the only bills that currently are still subject to the full fili­buster are civil rights and voting rights bills – just as was the case in the 1950s heyday of South­ern resist­ance. (These bills don’t cost gobs of money – if they did, they could be part of recon­cili­ation.)

That fact has an ugly history behind it. Between 1917 and 1994, 30 meas­ures were killed by the fili­buster. Half dealt with civil rights, such as author­iz­ing the federal invest­ig­a­tion and prosec­u­tion of lynch­ing. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed only after 60 days of debate.

It’s 2021, not 1951. The Senate’s dysfunc­tional proced­ures are not sacrosanct. Voting rights are. Repeatedly through­out history lawmakers have taken steps to strengthen the Senate so it can act in the public interest. As states gerry­mander with aban­don, as legis­lat­ors prepare to pass the next wave of voter suppres­sion laws start­ing in Janu­ary, much hangs in the balance. Yes, refus­ing to raise the debt ceil­ing would be cata­strophic for the coun­try. So would losing our demo­cracy.

*COR­REC­TION: The Free­dom to Vote Act, currently before the Senate, did not pass the House. Its prede­cessor, the For the People Act, did in March 2021. The error has been correc­ted.