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A Modest New Voting Rights Bill Gives Proponents One Last Shot at the Senate

Democrats scaled back their ambitions to create a measure that Republicans might support. If it fails, they’ll either have to break the filibuster—or give up.

Civil rights leader Arndrea Waters King speaks alongside Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III at a press conference on voting rights outside of the U.S. Capitol.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Civil rights leader Arndrea Waters King speaks alongside the Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III at a press conference on voting rights outside of the U.S. Capitol.

It’s been a trying few months for progressive activists hoping Congress would pass comprehensive voting rights legislation. Republicans torpedoed the For the People Act, a sweeping elections and ethics reform bill, and seem unwilling to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court.

Although they now control the Senate by a razor-thin majority, Democrats have limited power to enact much of their agenda thanks to the filibuster, which—say it with me now—requires 10 Republicans to support any legislation in order for it to advance. And despite increasingly loud calls to eliminate the filibuster from activists and some members of Congress, at least two Democratic senators refuse to support ending the practice, meaning that it is likely to stay intact for the foreseeable future.

But a development on Tuesday gave progressive activists reason to hope that Congress might actually take action amid nationwide efforts in Republican-led states to pass restrictive voting measures: the introduction of the Freedom to Vote Act.

The bill was crafted by a group of Democratic senators and builds off a framework proposed by Senator Joe Manchin, who had criticized the For the People Act as too broad. The new compromise measure includes many of the provisions from that earlier bill, such as enacting automatic voter registration, making Election Day a federal holiday, ensuring that every state has same-day voter registration, and banning partisan gerrymandering.

It also includes a provision on voter identification. Although it wouldn’t implement voter identification requirements nationwide, it would impose a “a uniform national standard” for states that do have voter ID requirements, and allow voters “to present a broad set of identification cards and documents in hard copy and digital form.”

When the Senate failed to advance voting rights legislation ahead of the August recess, it seemed as if the cause may have been put on the back burner. But the working group of eight Democrats continued to negotiate the bill, even after the Senate had left Washington. The announcement of the Freedom to Vote Act was met with pleasant surprise by many activists—particularly coming on top of reporting over the weekend that President Joe Biden was willing to begin leaning on senators to support reforming the filibuster.

Activist groups released statements on Tuesday morning lauding the Freedom to Vote Act, although some still cautioned that eliminating the filibuster may be necessary to enact meaningful voting rights reform. Meagan Hatcher-Mays, the director of Democracy Policy at Indivisible, called the new bill “encouraging” in a statement but said “all this negotiating will be for absolutely nothing if they don’t also take the steps required to get it to President Biden’s desk.”

Representative Mondaire Jones, who had introduced a bill on voting rights included in the Freedom to Vote Act, said in a statement that he urged the Senate “to do whatever it takes—including abolishing or reforming the filibuster—to get this bill passed.”

“In this defining moment for our democracy, we have a moral obligation to secure the sacred right of every American to make their voice heard in our democracy by passing this vital legislation,” Jones said.

But activists believe that even the fact that the bill was successfully negotiated and introduced shows that Democrats are taking voting rights seriously.

“This is fantastic news,” Eli Zupnick, the spokesperson of Fix Our Senate, told The New Republic in an interview. Manchin’s participation in crafting the bill is an especially good sign, Zupnick said, because it “puts [his] skin in the game.… Senator Manchin could have very easily not gotten to yes on this.”

Manchin now has the unenviable task of convincing 10 of his Republican colleagues to support the bill. This may be a quixotic effort, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters just hours after the Freedom to Vote Act was introduced that “we will not be supporting it.” (Manchin met with McConnell later on Tuesday afternoon, telling reporters that he was “out there talking to every Republican I can.”)

Senator Susan Collins, who is considered one of the more moderate Republican senators and a potentially persuadable vote, said Tuesday that she did not believe the federal government should impose mandates on state election systems.

“I don’t think we should federalize elections,” Collins said.

If Manchin’s efforts to persuade Republicans are unsuccessful, proponents of eliminating the filibuster are hoping that this will be the nudge to convince the West Virginia Democrat that they cannot pass any voting rights legislation as long as it is in place.

Zupnick said that the bill was a “necessary precondition for a serious conversation” about the filibuster. Now Democrats must decide if they will act on the legislation they’ve put forward, he said, even if it means rethinking Senate rules.

“Are they going to spend the next year and a half explaining why they didn’t do what they promised to do and make excuses, or are they going to rip the Band-Aid off?” Zupnick said.

Senate Democrats signaled that they would be willing to have a larger conversation about the filibuster if Manchin’s efforts are unsuccessful. Senator Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who crafted the For the People Act and helped negotiate the Freedom to Vote Act, told reporters on Tuesday morning that there will be a “conversation” among Democrats if there aren’t enough Republicans to support the bill.

“When we come to that stage, assuming we can’t get 10 Republicans to protect the fundamental freedom to vote in this country, there’s various approaches that can be taken,” Merkley said, such as a carve-out to filibuster rules for voting rights legislation, or implementing a talking filibuster, which he would support. Senator Alex Padilla, another Democrat who worked on the Freedom to Vote Act, told reporters on Tuesday that if Republicans weren’t on board, then Democrats will need to “revisit the rules of the Senate, because it’s too important not to get done.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also indicated on Tuesday that Democrats would consider reforming or eliminating the filibuster.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. As I said, all options are on the table,” Schumer said during a press conference.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Declaration for American Democracy coalition held a rally on Capitol Hill calling on the Senate to pass voting rights legislation, featuring speeches from several of the Democrats who had crafted the new bill. Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, also spoke at the event, calling for the Senate to pass voting rights measures by any means necessary.*

For activists, the Freedom to Vote Act is a key step forward, but the filibuster remains an entrenched problem. In an interview with The New Republic, Waters King, the president of the Drum Major Institute, noted that the filibuster had historically been used to block anti-lynching bills and civil rights legislation in the twentieth century.

“If you understand the history of it, you can see the ties to suppression and white supremacy, and why it is a relic of that era and time and why it needs to be eliminated,” she said.

* This post originally misidentified Arndrea Waters King.