End the Filibuster. Now.

Nothing is more consequential for the future of democratic government than elimination of the filibuster — the tool that allows a minority to frustrate the will of the majority. 

If the filibuster is not ended — or, at least, curtailed — Democrats will not be able to pass the comprehensive election reform bill that is now before Congress. Failure to pass the legislation will open the way for Republicans to pass voter suppression laws. Republicans have ceased to be partners in protecting and furthering voting rights because they are a party that no longer has a governing ideology. Lacking any meaningful policy agenda with popular appeal, Republicans know the only way they can win elections in the future is by limiting the vote to constituencies most likely to support their anti-democratic goals. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republican legislators around the country — capitalizing on Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him — have introduced measures to limit who can vote by mail while making it harder for eligible voters to obtain mail-in ballots. A number of states have legislation on their calendars to impose more stringent voter ID laws. Other states would slash opportunities for voters to register while aggressively purging voter rolls. Some states are preparing to limit early voting by restricting days and hours polls would be open and limiting the number of ballot drop-off boxes. In what can only be considered petty legislation, some legislators would forbid volunteers from offering food and water to voters standing in line. (Lines will increase in size in proportion to limits on early and absentee voting.) And, last but not least in importance, the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives (and state legislatures) will change because of the 2020 census, giving a number of states the opportunity to further gerrymander legislative districts.

All these measures impact minority and poor voters disproportionately. Whether Republicans favor limiting voting rights because it is the only way to cling to power or because of racist opposition to minorities voting (or, most likely, a combination of the two) is immaterial. What is important is that the voter suppression measures cited above would enshrine minority control of government at the federal and state levels. The result will be the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans and the guarantee that a minority of the population succeeds in preventing the passage of legislation favored by a large part of the public. 

This dire prediction is made worse because the Supreme Court — which already has struck down a key provision in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Bill — is poised to further gut the measure. At issue in the case before the court in the current session is Section 2 of the 1965 law which prohibits state electoral regulations that result in the denial of a citizen’s right to vote based on race. If the high court declares Section 2 invalid, which seems likely, then states will be free to impose racial barriers on voting. (A separate measure before Congress, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore the protections of the 1965 law.)

The effects of Republican legislation at the state level and the Supreme Court’s possible evisceration of the Voting Rights Law can be mitigated by Senate passage of H.R. 1, the “For the People Act of 2021.” (The House passed the measure last week.) Simply put, the bill will make it easier for people to vote by providing for automatic voter registration, no-excuse mail-in voting, setting standards for the days states must allow in-person early voting, and requiring states to count mail-in ballots early to lessen counting controversies after Election Day. The bill reduces the influence of money in politics by exposing dark-money campaign contributions and creating a federal matching system for congressional elections. The measure also decreases the control politicians have over redistricting (gerrymandering) by giving the power to draw district lines to independent commissions. Finally, “For the People” tightens rules against lobbying and toughens penalties for foreign interference in American elections. 

But, and this is a big but — none of this happens if the filibuster is not curtailed. 

The Senate version of “For the People” now sits in the Rules and Administration Committee, chaired by Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar. The committee will hold hearings on the measure later in March, with floor action slated for later this spring. Klobuchar said many of the provisions of the omnibus bill have had bipartisan support as individual pieces of legislation. “Not all provisions are bipartisan, but a lot are,” she said. 

Republicans see the entire measure as permitting the federal government to interfere in state control of elections. That is their rational argument. More often, Republicans claim the bill is an overreach by Democrats to guarantee their hold on power. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow a vote on a version of the bill when he was majority leader. “What this bill is, is a Democrat push to elect more Democrats,” the Kentuckian said in 2019. Unbelievably, former vice president Mike Pence — whose life was threatened by a mob perpetuating Trump’s lies about a fraudulent election — has written that “For the People” will “increase opportunities for election fraud, trample the First Amendment, further erode confidence in our elections, and forever dilute the votes of legally qualified eligible voters.” (News flash, Mike: The Trumpistas will never forgive you no matter how much toadying up to the former guy you do.)

These concerns would have little import if all Democrats favored ending the filibuster. Support for basing passage of legislation on a simple majority vote is increasing, but Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona favor keeping the rule. Manchin defends the filibuster: “The minority should have input — that’s the whole purpose for the Senate. If you basically do away with the filibuster altogether for legislation, you won’t have the Senate. You’re a glorified House. And I will not do that. (Manchin said Sunday he is open to make the filibuster “a bit more painful” to use.)

Democrats who support the filibuster are short-sighted. The omnibus voting bill will not pass if the filibuster is retained. That will enshrine minority rule in Congress and state legislatures as Republicans continue to pass laws restricting voting, state legislatures maintain the gerrymander, and the Supreme Court obliterates the Voting Rights Act. Yes, doing away with the filibuster is in the self-interest of the Democratic Party. But, it is also the right thing to do. The filibuster never made much sense in a democracy. In 2021, its continuation will serve reactionary interests by frustrating majoritarian rule. We do not live in the 1790s, after all, when only White males who owned property could vote. Since then, Americans have extended the vote to more and more people: First, all men, then all men regardless of race (in theory), women (in 1920), lowering the voting age, and finally protections to guarantee all eligible citizens can vote.

Reactionary Republicans of 2021 do not subscribe to the doctrine that all people should vote. That is the difference between Republicans and Democrats, which was eloquently put by Representative John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. “You can win on the basis of your ideas and the programs you put forward, which is what we choose to do,” said Sarbanes. “Or you can try to win by suppressing the vote, drawing unfair districts across the country and using big money to spread disinformation.”

Posted March 9, 2021

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