Are Democrats' hopes of voting rights reform already dashed?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The For the People Act, the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights legislation, was stymied in the Senate on Tuesday after Republicans filibustered a procedural vote that would have allowed debate on the proposal to begin. All 50 Democrats in the chamber voted to proceed, but the GOP was unified in opposition, leaving the measure well short of the 60-vote threshold needed to break the filibuster.

Democratic leaders, who had expected the GOP to block debate, said the vote was a necessary step in a long process toward passing reforms they believe are necessary to counter a wave of restrictive new elections laws passed by state-level Republicans. “This fight is far from over,” President Biden said. “We are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again — for the people, for our very democracy.”

If passed into law, the For the People Act, also known as H.R.1 and S.1, would represent the most dramatic reforms to U.S. elections in a generation. Among its many provisions are measures to expand early voting, establish nationwide absentee voting and same-day registration, and ban partisan gerrymandering.

While there has been some disagreement among Democrats about the specifics of the bill, the main impediment to its passage is the filibuster. In theory, Democrats could change Senate rules and eliminate or modify the filibuster to allow the For the People Act to pass by a simple majority vote — a path many progressives support — but all 50 would have to be in agreement. At least two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they are staunchly opposed to any plan that would kill or weaken the filibuster.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many pundits, Tuesday’s failed vote highlighted an unfortunate truth for Democrats: No voting rights bill can pass as long as the filibuster is in place, and there simply isn’t enough support in the party to get rid of it. Though progressives have argued that the For the People Act is critical to countering new Republican election laws they say are an existential threat to American democracy, the party as a whole doesn’t appear to share that same urgency. Some reform advocates say Democratic leaders are more concerned with appearing to fight for voting rights as a way to placate progressive voters than with actually getting anything done.

Some on the left are more optimistic. They argue that Manchin and Sinema could ultimately be persuaded to amend the filibuster, now that they’ve seen how far-fetched the prospects of a bipartisan deal on voting rights really are. Others see signs of progress in Manchin, who released his own less-ambitious voting rights proposal last week that nonetheless garnered support from a number of prominent progressives. The Democrats’ best hope of enacting new voting rights legislation, some political analysts say, is to abandon the For the People Act and pursue Manchin’s compromise, or some other pared-back voting rights plan.

What’s next

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Tuesday’s vote “the starting gun, not the finish line.” But it’s unclear what concrete steps he might have available as long as Manchin, Sinema and any other Democratic holdouts hold firm in their stance on the filibuster.

The Biden administration is also seeking legal remedies to push back against restrictive voter laws passed by state-level Republicans. The Justice Department on Friday announced it will sue Georgia, alleging its new law violates civil rights. 

Perspectives

Democrats aren’t committed enough to take the aggressive steps needed

“Democrats claim that democracy is under threat, but they lack the collective will to save it.” — Russell Berman, The Atlantic

Less ambitious bills than the For the People Act are equally doomed

“It may be, as some pundits have opined, that the For the People Act was just a messaging bill, a symbolic gesture for their base, and it was a mistake for Democrats to hype it up as their main voting rights fix. But why should we believe that any of the other voting rights bills waiting in the wings will fare better? As it is, there is no evidence that Republicans will support any of them.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

Top Democrats’ support for voting rights is largely empty rhetoric

“What did Tuesday’s developments prove? Was all of that merely performative — by Manchin, as well as Senate Democratic leaders? Yes. And for now, it seems to be the only strategy Democrats have.” — Joan Walsh, The Nation

Democrats have bungled the strategy of pursuing voting rights reform

“It’s not as though I philosophically disagree with a lot of what’s in H.R. 1. It’s that in a 50-50 Senate, it seems that selling the world on H.R. 1 or we all die is a bad and ultimately self-defeating message.” — Elections expert Rick Hasen to Slate

Biden’s other legislative goals are taking priority over voting rights

“Biden has other priorities that he sees as having more plausible paths to success. ... While activists want him to pile on the pressure on Manchin and Sinema for voting rights, Biden also needs their votes for all his other priorities; alienating them would be untenable.” — Andrew Prokop, Vox

Democrats are creating room for a small filibuster exception for voting rights

“Where we may be headed is a carveout. … Surely, democracy and republic saving legislation, you could find a way to do a carevout. And now I think Manchin and Sinema have the permission structure to say ‘we did all we could … this isn’t on the level, so now we have to move to a change in Senate rules.’” — Former Obama adviser David Plouffe to MSNBC

Biden should step up pressure on filibuster holdouts

“Manchin and another Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have resisted the idea of abolishing the filibuster. But if GOP senators continue to stonewall reasonable legislation to protect the right to vote, those two reluctant Democrats must be pressed to recognize that — at least where protecting democracy is concerned — the filibuster must go.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Democrats can improve their odds by moving on to more reasonable voting rights bills

“The demise of the For the People Act … will come as a crushing blow to progressives and reformers, who have portrayed the law as an essential tool for saving democracy. But it was a flawed bill that had little chance of testing the limits of what if anything is still possible in Washington. Voting rights activists and Democratic lawmakers may even find that the collapse of this law opens up more plausible, if still highly unlikely, paths to reform.” — Nate Cohn, New York Times

Manchin will eventually get fed up with GOP obstruction

“Democrats have exhausted all options to find common ground on voting rights, and this may finally give the West Virginia senator a nudge to reconsider his emphasis on bipartisanship.” — Keith Boykin, CNN

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