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Democrats’ Failure to Effectively Champion Voting Rights May Cost Them in 2022

This stalemate is one that Democrats can only break by ditching the filibuster.

Voting rights and economic justice activists prepare to be arrested on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on October 28, 2021, after they tried to gain access to Hart Senate Office Building while protesting.

For the past year, since the 2020 presidential election, the Republican Party has waged war on the democratic process. It has initiated phony “audits” of swing-state election results that former President Donald Trump falsely claimed were rigged against him. State GOP parties have purged Trump critics, including fellow Republicans, from positions of power. And in Georgia and elsewhere, state legislators have passed laws that make it easier for the governing party to purge election officials who don’t bend to partisan claims of fraud.

Ultimately, however, even with laws making it easier to remove low-level election officials, each state’s secretary of state still has the most say over how elections and post-election controversies are conducted in their jurisdiction. This is why the Trumpified GOP has also been steadily ratcheting up pressure on higher-ranking officials.

Recently, Trump has been throwing his political weight behind a slew of primary challenges designed to weed out all remaining opposition within the Republican party to his claims that he can only lose an election if his opponents rig the vote count. Trump is, for example, pushing to oust Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, who had the temerity to push back against Trump’s demands that he “find” enough pro-Trump votes to deliver the Peach State to him in 2020.

And in one state after another, GOP legislators have passed, and governors have signed, laws intended to massively roll back access to the ballot box, and make it ever more difficult for poor and non-white residents to vote. Legislators have proposed draconian restrictions in 43 states this year, in an effort to roll back early voting, to impose onerous voter ID requirements, and to limit actions such as the Black church–led “Souls to the Polls” walks on the Sunday before Election Day in many states throughout the South in particular. As of July at least 17 states had signed such restrictions into law, with more states likely to follow suit.

This is a meticulous, multipronged and deeply strategic attack on the viability of, and protections underpinning, American democratic institutions.

In response, Democrats in Congress have pushed two pieces of legislation intended to shore up the Voting Rights Act, which has been largely drained of its force by the Supreme Court over the last decade. The most ambitious of these, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, included a host of provisions that expand automatic voter registration, protect early and mail-in voting systems, and ensure that states are subject to federal review if legislatures begin passing laws that look like they discriminate against voters of color. The second act, known as the Freedom to Vote Act, brokered as an act of compromise by Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), is less far reaching but still critically important. It aims to limit gerrymandering, whereby political parties carve out voting districts that are almost immune to partisan challenges; reforms the campaign finance system; and sets in place a slew of protections for access to the ballot box.

Yet neither of these bills has garnered significant Republican support in the Senate, although Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) did come out in favor of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. In fact, quite the reverse: To date, every time the Senate votes on these bills, Mitch McConnell orders his people to lockstep filibuster and otherwise frustrate passage of the legislation. The result has been an ongoing stalemate, with McConnell seeking to sustain the state-level stampede toward massive voter suppression in the upcoming elections.

Given the byzantine rules of the senate, this stalemate is one that Democrats can only break by ditching the filibuster. Scrapping the filibuster has been known as the “nuclear option” since Republican majority leader Trent Lott coined that phrase when musing on what he saw as the dangers of meddling with age-old institutional rules. In 2013, Democratic leader Harry Reid abolished the filibuster for presidential nominees. More recently, McConnell rode roughshod over it when it came specifically to Supreme Court nominees. To date, though, neither party has given the formal nod to entirely abolishing the antiquated process. Yet, given the five-alarm-fire nature of the attack on voting rights, such an option is now more needed than ever before, for without doing so, popular and vital political measures aimed at protecting fundamental parts of the country’s democratic system will continue to be stymied by a determined and anti-democratic minority.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who is nowhere near as adept as McConnell in ruthlessly keeping his caucus in line, has, however, failed dismally to move forward on this.

Ironically, the biggest obstacle to reform is Manchin, who ostensibly supports protecting voting rights, yet has refused to contemplate abolishing or modifying the filibuster. President Joe Biden himself, the senate institutionalist that he is, has also not fully thrown his weight behind the efforts to overturn the filibuster. As a result, the Democrats have, with a lot of grumbling but precious little real bite, stepped back on the issue, and the GOP senators, whose 50 members represent 41 million fewer Americans than do their 50 Democratic colleagues, are being given free rein to run roughshod over the democratic process.

Time is running out fast for the Democrats on this issue. Failure to protect voting rights federally this year makes it all but certain that in a critical number of closely contested states in 2022 and again in 2024, the full force of the GOP-controlled state political machinery will be brought to bear to limit the franchise and also to make it easier to reject inconvenient political results that don’t go the way the GOP and their marquee candidates want them to.

Had the Democrats been riding high at this point in the electoral cycle, the failure to protect voting rights might not have been so catastrophic. After all, if the Democrats were to blow the GOP out of the water by huge margins, no amount of shenanigans would alter that outcome. But by no stretch of the imagination is the party faring well with critical parts of the electorate. The Democratic Party is hemorrhaging support in rural America, and it is deeply underwater with suburban independent voters, who have provided the critical margins of victory in the last two elections. The best case scenario in 2022 is that Democrats recover just enough to hold their own; the worst case and more likely scenario is that a combination of voter disillusionment due to legislative letdowns and aggressive GOP-led restrictions on the franchise couple to create a GOP sweep similar to the Tea Party wave of 2010 that overwhelms the Democratic Party and consigns it to minority status in Congress for years.

In the aftermath of last Tuesday’s election results, the Democrats’ prospects in next year’s midterms look increasingly tenuous; and, in consequence, their failure to forcefully advocate for meaningful voting rights protections looks increasingly self-destructive.

Biden’s popularity has sunk to dramatically low levels, and even though large majorities of the public support the infrastructure bill that just passed Congress, it seems unlikely that the president or his party will, in the short term, benefit politically from its passage, especially since so much attention has centered on the intraparty warfare within the Democratic caucus process leading up to the bill’s passage rather than the substance of the bill itself.

This was a self-inflicted wound, as has been the abject failure to tackle McConnell’s shameful obstructionism on voting rights. It will make it that much harder for the Democrats to stand a fighting chance come 2022; and that, in turn, could have huge implications for the 2024 presidential election.

For if the GOP controls both houses of Congress in 2023 and 2024, and if state parties continue their crusade to undermine ballot box access and to eviscerate vote count protections going into the next presidential election, the stage will have been set for a contest in which the institutional brakes that just about worked in 2020 and early 2021 to stop Trump’s attempted coup no longer hold. And that could, truly, be the death knell of democracy in the U.S.

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