When it comes to securing voting rights, rhetorical flourish will go only so far. At his eulogy for civil rights icon John Lewis last year, former President Obama waxed eloquent in support of comprehensive legislation. Last week in Philadelphia, President Biden’s voting rights speech was occasionally stirring and substantively on target. But the clock is running out on passing any voting protections. Republicans in Congress are gleefully obstructionist to needed reforms, and those in state legislatures across the country are hell-bent to return us to the days of Jim Crow laws.
Although the 2020 Presidential election was free, fair and highly engaged, the process could be improved, from institutionalizing some of the temporary Covid adaptations to eliminating partisan Gerrymandering. Instead, Republicans continue to perpetuate Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen. In fact, it was the most examined, reexamined and reexamined again Presidential race in modern history. Election officials of both parties, numerous recounts and audits have not found any significant irregularities. Repeated frivolous lawsuits by Trump and his minions have been laughed out of court. But this is no laughing matter.
On the twisted theory that they’re preventing voter fraud, 17 states have enacted 28 new voter suppression laws. Another 400 proposed laws are pending. The most charitable characterization is that they are misguided solutions looking for problems. Of greater concern is that they are part of a web of nefarious right-wing plots to disenfranchise significant parts of the electorate and, if those tactics don’t work, create a fail-safe backstop that will lawfully remove the authority of election officials to certify winners and losers.
For the past year, writers have attributed to Josef Stalin the statement that “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” The Russian dictator apparently did not say that. It could have been Stalin’s former secretary, Boris Bazhanov. It could also have been Chicago’s notorious Mayor Richard Daley. The point remains. Voter subversion – improperly tallying the votes – can be as destructive as voter suppression and must be guarded against by secure and uniform procedures. But the country is moving in the wrong direction.
A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision diluted the 1965 Voting Rights Act by removing federal review of state laws that went out of their way to constrain minorities’ voter participation. Since then, the largely Republican assault on democracy has been gathering steam. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act , passed by the House, would restore those parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act giving the federal government the power to pre-approve state laws designed to suppress voting. Realistically, given the extreme anti-voting-rights stance of the Roberts-driven Supreme Court, there’s little certainty the Court would even uphold that restoration. But a carefully designed law – such as applying it equally to all states – could help it pass judicial muster.
The House of Representatives has also passed HR1, the For the People Act to impart fairness to the electoral process. It would take electoral reform to another level. HR1would expand access to the ballot box, limit the influence of dark money on the political process, eliminate partisan gerrymandering, and implement certain ethics reforms. Critics claim it would transfer local prerogatives to the federal government. But, when it comes to preserving Constitutionally provided rights, the federal government is the guarantor of last resort.
So now it’s up to the U.S. Senate, where the filibuster looms, necessitating 60 votes – that is, ten Republicans in addition to all Democrats, Independents voting as Democrats and the Vice President as tie-breaker – to pass these bills. Yet a simple majority the Senate, if members agreed, could create a carve-out for voting rights bills, meaning they would not require 60 votes to pass.
Alas, even that limited goal is blunted by Senator Joe Manchin III (D, W.Virg.), the “ultimate swing vote” and disproportionate power in the Biden era. Manchin, a Don Quixote in the deluded pursuit of bipartisan support for voting rights, can’t be allowed to bolster radical Republican opposition to the nation’s most foundational commitment to strengthening the democratic process. And let’s be clear: Manchin isn’t just a philosopher in pursuit of bipartisanship. The Texas Tribune just reported on a Texas fundraiser for Manchin on Friday to garner funds from oil and gas interests who donate exclusively to Republicans.
Meanwhile, the Republicans have been explicit about their unwillingness to compromise. They see expanded ballot access, especially among people of color, as an existential threat to the Grand Old Party. They see partisan Gerrymandering helping them take back the House in 2022, a first step to controlling all three branches of government. (Despite flowery rhetoric of their own supporting the sanctity of the ballot, only Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski supports the John Lewis Act.) They have no incentive to put public interest above feral partisan instincts.
Enough rhetoric. It’s time for Joe Biden, who knows the ways of the Senate, to show some LBJ skills behind the scenes, optimally without causing Joe Manchin to bolt to the GOP.