Tuesday, August 24th
With the Democratic-led House of Representatives expected to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, pressure is growing on the Biden administration and Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster, without which new voting rights legislation and other Democratic priorities have no hope of passing the Senate. We speak with Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way and former president of the NAACP, as voting rights groups protest in front of the White House. Jealous says the action is intended to “up the pressure on Biden” to call on the Senate to get rid of the filibuster. “The filibuster was the insulator of Jim Crow. It is an accident of legislative history. It’s not part of the Constitution in any way,” Jealous says.
During Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, there are few issues more pressing than the escalating attack on the right to vote in America. Democrats may be running out of time to address it.
As Republicans have pushed more than 360 bills across the country to restrict access to the ballot, the president and Democrats have strongly condemned those efforts, but they’ve been unable to stop them. Even though Democrats control both chambers of Congress in Washington, they can’t pass a sweeping voting rights bill because they don’t have enough votes to get rid of the filibuster, an arcane senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation. A showdown over the filibuster has loomed over the first 100 days of the Biden administration, but during the next 100 days, it’s clear that a showdown over getting rid of the procedure is unavoidable.
Amanda Litman, the executive director of the Run for Something, a group that recruits candidates for state legislative races, told me this week she thinks some Democrats still don’t fully appreciate how dangerous and consequential the GOP’s ongoing efforts are. “This is really an existential crisis. It’s a five-alarm fire. But I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in for members of the United States Senate or the Democratic party writ large,” she told me.
“If the Senate does not kill the filibuster and pass voting rights reforms … Democrats are going to lose control of the House and likely the Senate forever. You don’t put these worms back into a can. You can’t undo this quite easily,” she added.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, last week set August as a deadline for Democrats to pass their sweeping voting rights bill, which would require early voting, automatic and same-day registration, among other measures. Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, said the White House supports that effort.
But the window for Democrats to have the most impact with their legislation is rapidly closing. The decennial process of redrawing district lines is set to take place later this year, and a critical portion of the Democratic bill would set new limits to prevent state lawmakers, who have the power to draw the maps, from severely manipulating districts for partisan gain. While it’s probably already too late to set up independent redistricting commissions for this year, Democrats could still pass rules to prevent the most severe partisan manipulation.
“You could pass new criteria, including a ban on partisan gerrymandering…require greater transparency in the process,” Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me. “There’s a lot that could be done.”
I also asked the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who chairs the Senate committee currently considering the bill, what kind of message it would send if Democrats failed to take any action to protect voting rights while they held the reins of government. “Failure is not an option,” she said, adding she wasn’t going to let the filibuster stand in the way.
“This is our very democracy that’s at stake,” she said. “I’m not gonna let some old senate rule get in the way of that.”