Restrict the Vote!

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If you can’t beat them fair and square, tilt the playing field.

Jamelle Bouie

Feb. 23, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
Credit...Elizabeth Bick for The New York Times

Last year, in his eulogy for Representative John Lewis, President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass a new voting rights act to continue the work of the lifelong civil rights activist.

“If politicians want to honor John, and I’m so grateful for the legacy of work of all the Congressional leaders who are here, but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero,” Obama said. “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.”

Obama then called on federal lawmakers to lift as many barriers to voting as they could. “Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better,” he said, listing automatic voter registration, felon re-enfranchisement, a national voting holiday, D.C. statehood and curbs on partisan gerrymandering as reforms that would do justice to Lewis’s memory. “And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster,” Obama concluded, “then that’s what we should do.”

Although he probably expected them to win in November, Obama said this not knowing whether Democrats would have a majority in the Senate come the start of the next Congress. Well, Democrats have that majority. And thanks in large part to the work of John Lewis and those who followed in his footsteps, it rests on two senators from Georgia, whose political futures rest in turn on whether every voter in the state has equal access to the ballot.

The same is true in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where slim margins made the difference between Democratic victory and Republican defeat in the last election, and where Republican legislative majorities are determined to keep Democrats as far from power as possible — and not to lose the next presidential election the way they lost the last one. To that end, they have introduced bills to restrict the vote, to make the race for the Electoral College — as well as any race for statewide office — as noncompetitive as possible, by taking as many Democratic voters off the board as they can.

Obama asked Democrats to kill the filibuster and pass a voting rights bill because it was the right thing to do. But there’s a stronger argument: that if Democrats don’t do this, they’ll be at the mercy of a Trumpified Republican Party that has radicalized against democracy itself.

Democrats have already written the kind of voting rights bill Obama spoke about. It’s the For the People Act, designated as H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate. If passed and signed into law, it would establish automatic, same-day and online voter registration, protect eligible voters from overly broad purges that remove them from the rolls, restore the Voting Rights Act with a new formula for federal preclearance (which would require select cities and localities to submit new voting rules to the Justice Department for clearance), re-enfranchise the formerly incarcerated, strengthen mail-in voting systems, institute nationwide early voting and increase criminal penalties for voter intimidation.

House Democrats introduced H.R. 1 in 2019 at the start of the 116th Congress. Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader of the Senate, denounced the bill as a “naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party” and told reporters it was dead on arrival. “This is a terrible proposal,” he said that March, “it will not get any floor time in the Senate.”

McConnell no longer controls the floor, but with a de facto supermajority requirement in the Senate, the For the People Act is still dead on arrival. That is, unless Democrats kill the legislative filibuster and restore majority rule to the chamber. Right now, Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are the most vocal Democratic opponents of ending the filibuster. “I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work,” Sinema said earlier this month, seemingly mistaking McConnell’s Obama-era innovation for an age-old tradition. Manchin has also been emphatic about keeping the supermajority requirement, telling Politico that he will “not vote in this Congress” to change the filibuster.

Manchin, who has been winning elections in West Virginia for the last 20 years, is safe in his seat for as long as he wants it. Sinema, on the other hand, is much more vulnerable. Not the least because Arizona’s Republican state Legislature, to say nothing of its Republican Party, is all-in on “stop the steal” and Donald Trump’s war on mail-in voting. Arizona Republicans have already introduced bills to limit voter registration drives, require notarized signatures for mailed ballots and forbid voters from actually mailing-in completed ballots.

Arizona Republicans are not alone. To date, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U.’s law school, Republicans in 33 states have introduced more than 165 bills to restrict voting, part of the national conservative backlash to the results of the 2020 presidential election. A bill in Georgia would put new restrictions on absentee and in-person early voting; four different bills in Pennsylvania would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting less than two years after Republican lawmakers voted it into law.

Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican in the House, captured the mood of the party when, on Sunday, he refused to say that the election wasn’t stolen from Trump. “Once the electors are counted, yes, he’s the legitimate president,” Scalise said in an interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC News, speaking of Joe Biden. “But if you’re going to ignore the fact that there were states that did not follow their own state legislatively set laws. That’s the issue at heart, that millions of people still are not happy with and don’t want to see happen again.”

This is euphemism. There was no issue with the election. State legislatures passed laws, courts interpreted them, and officials put them into action. This was true in states Trump won, like Texas and North Carolina, as much as it was in states he lost. It almost goes without saying that the real issue, the reason Republicans are actually unhappy, is that Biden is president and Democrats control Congress.

Devoted to Trump, and committed to his fictions about the election, Republicans are doing everything they can to keep voters from holding them and their leaders accountable. They will restrict the vote. They will continue to gerrymander themselves into near-permanent majorities. A Republican in Arizona has even proposed a legislative veto over the popular vote in presidential elections, under the dubious theory that state legislatures have unconditional, unlimited and unrestricted power to allocate electoral votes.

The good news is that Democrats in Congress have it in their power to stop a lot of this nonsense, to pre-emptively weaken the rising tide of voter suppression. All it takes is a simple vote to make the Senate work according to majority rule, as the founding fathers intended.

The alternative is to allow the supermajority requirement to stand, to allow endless stagnation, to abdicate the authority of Congress to govern the country and tackle its problems, to deny the party of collective action the ability to act for the public good and to give the party of plutocrats and demagogues free rein to twist the institutions of the American republic against its values.

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