Last week, after two days of debate in the Senate, Democrats’ push for voting rights was quashed, as conservative Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin sided with the GOP to block a change to the filibuster, a tactic long used to undermine civil rights legislation. This amounts to the fifth instance of Senate Republicans blocking Democrats’ attempt to roll back GOP efforts to make it harder to vote.
This time, Republicans used the filibuster to shut down the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, two bills that aimed to curb gerrymandering and voter suppression across the U.S.
While it normally takes — a currently insurmountable — 60 out of 100 senators to defeat a filibuster, Democrats could have overridden it with the support of all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus alongside Kamala Harris.
Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced in a speech prior to the decision that she wouldn’t vote to weaken the filibuster to protect voting rights. Arizona Democrats have since rebuked her move. She was also met with ire when she posted a tweet commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with several responses referencing MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he warned of the “white moderate”:
“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’…”
On MLK Day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s family joined other civil rights advocates and faith leaders in Washington, D.C. to demand the passage of voting rights legislation.
Dire need for such expanded laws has come after two supreme court decisions gutted the monumental Voting Rights Act of 1965, which revolutionized African American access to voting. Shelby v. Holder in 2013 and Brnovich v. the DNC in 2021 enabled a storm of gerrymandering and laws created to reduce voter turnout: Millions of voters from Democratic-leaning communities of color were disenfranchised as a result.
Joe Manchin recently assured a reporter concerned about voters’ disenfranchisement that “the government will stand behind them to make sure they have a right to vote. We act like we’re going to obstruct people from voting. That’s not going to happen.” But as the Senate debated the legislation, large urban counties in Texas reported they were rejecting up to half of all mail ballot applications for the upcoming March primary due to stringent voter ID requirements.
As Ari Berman for Mother Jones pointed out:
“The Texas law, like virtually every other voting restriction adopted by Republicans over the past year, passed on a party-line, simple-majority vote, yet Manchin and Sinema blocked the Senate from protecting voting rights in the same manner, insisting on requiring a bipartisan supermajority by upholding the filibuster.”
Expanded access to voting remains unattainable for Democrats, though several senators managed to deploy urgent cases. In a rare instance, the party’s progressives and (most) moderates united in an attempt to end the filibuster.
Image by Jacquelyn Martin / AP