Democrats are running out of room to move legislation to reform elections and expand voting access—and a core constituency who put Democrats in charge is running out of patience.
On Wednesday, congressional Democrats hit an inflection point after months of pushing for election reforms. When the Freedom to Vote Act—a comprehensive bill to overhaul all kinds of election rules—came to the floor, all 50 Republican senators voted to filibuster it.
Despite unified Democratic support, the legislation is dead unless Democrats decide to change Senate rules to allow it to pass with a simple majority instead of 60 votes. But there are no signs that will happen anytime soon and the window for the party to enact voting legislation ahead of the 2022 midterms is already starting to look more like a wall.
In the wake of Wednesday’s vote, civil rights groups made some of their most unequivocal statements yet about the political perils for Democrats if they don’t pass voting reforms.
“If Democrats fail to protect the vote, the breach of trust with Black voters would be massive and irreparable,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told The Daily Beast. “Black voters have time and again saved our democracy, yet leaders continue to silence our voices at the polls.”
“If Democrats don’t deliver for Black voters,” Johnson asked, “how do Democrats expect Black voters to deliver for them?”
Cliff Albright, an Atlanta-based organizer for the group Black Voters Matter, was blunt in his assessment of why Democrats had not made more progress on their voting rights promises: they simply have not prioritized it.
“They have a whole strategy that is built on us still turning out despite all the failures they've had, particularly in relation to voting rights,” said Albright. “We don’t ask for a whole lot. We ask for you to do the things you said you were going to do when you were running.”
“When you don’t get it done, and we stay home,” Albright continued, “don’t look at us like we’re crazy.”
On Capitol Hill, these criticisms are taken seriously by Democratic lawmakers. Few of them have forgotten how Black turnout in battleground states helped to deliver the presidency to Joe Biden, or how sustained efforts from Black organizers delivered them the Senate majority through twin victories in Georgia’s runoff elections. And virtually every Democrat is well aware that new GOP-backed voting laws in places like Georgia and Arizona were drafted in response to those losses and Donald Trump’s false 2020 election fraud conspiracies.
Asked if he was concerned that Black voters would question their trust in Democrats if they failed to deliver on voting rights, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) said that’s a “natural conclusion that people will come to.”
“They're going to want to understand how a procedural rule can get in the way of a majority vote on such a fundamental issue,” Johnson said.
Nearly all Democrats support advancing their election reform package through a carve-out to the filibuster rule, or through ending the 60-vote threshold altogether. But there is no path to eliminating it, because Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are publicly opposed to any rule changes. Biden, meanwhile, has not only steered clear from endorsing any filibuster reforms, he hasn’t said much about them at all.
Party leaders have largely focused on blaming Republicans, and while every Democrat agrees that is warranted, some wonder whether voters will care.
“When a minority can block very popular things like voting rights legislation, it makes it very confusing for the electorate who to blame,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “Do I blame the party in charge that didn’t get it done? Or do I blame the minority that used the rules to gum up the works? Which is why I have a hard time figuring out how democracy survives if we don't change the rules in the Senate.”
That state of affairs leaves many Democrats in the frustrating position of vowing to do something on the issue—even if they do not know exactly how it will happen—in the face of dire warnings from advocates about the cost of failure.
Most Democratic senators insist failure is simply not an option. “We must deliver,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). “We must deliver because we promised, and we must deliver because the survival of our democracy is at stake. And because we must, we will.”
Anyone who is concerned about threats to voting access, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), “rightfully expects us to do something, and we have to—we can't not do it, we have to do it.”
If there is any path at all to enacting voting reforms with only Democratic votes in an evenly split Senate, Wednesday’s vote was a necessary step. The Freedom to Vote Act was a product of painstaking internal compromise, brokered through a group of Democratic senators after Manchin said over the summer that he could not support the so-called For The People Act, the party’s banner voting reform legislation.
The legislation that got Manchin’s vote on Wednesday—in addition to every other Senate Democrat—addresses some lawmakers’ concerns by giving local election officials more flexibility in their timetables for implementing the new measures. But many of those measures are largely the same in the compromise bill as before: It includes everything from a national vote by mail system, to making Election Day a holiday, to limiting gerrymandering.
For months, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has sought to demonstrate total unity within the Democratic caucus before engaging fully on the filibuster discussion. And he gave Manchin time and space to court GOP support for the legislation, which the West Virginia centrist said was essential.
The GOP filibuster, and Democrats’ unified support, means that they can demonstrate to holdouts what they could pass if not for the 60-vote threshold. That result gave disappointed Democrats at least some reason for optimism, and several key lawmakers said in statements after the vote that conversations would continue.
Asked if he was concerned that Democrats would not make good on their promises, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), said it “doesn’t do much to worry.”
“We have to go right back to the table, and continue to do the work,” said the freshman progressive and Congressional Black Caucus member.
At this point, however, Black advocates have high expectations for what Washington Democrats need to do to reinvigorate the voting reform push, particularly from Biden.
Many have been disappointed that the president has not endorsed any filibuster reform, even as he speaks of the voting rights struggle in existential terms. In a statement released after the vote, Biden said that “democracy—the very soul of America—is at stake.”
The president has publicly backed voting reforms on several occasions, notably taking trips to Philadelphia and Tulsa for speeches on the topic. But he has largely spent his political capital in Congress and with the public on his multi-trillion-dollar domestic agenda. He is seemingly talking almost daily with Manchin and Sinema, who are also objecting to the party’s sweeping social spending package.
Albright, of Black Voters Matter, said that there’s a clear discrepancy between that kind of rhetoric and Biden’s actions. “If they’d put the same energy into voting rights a long time ago, we’d already have bills passed,” he said.
Given centrists’ continued resistance to Biden’s proposals on health care, climate change, taxation, and other key issues despite his personal involvement, that assessment may be a bit too rosy. But Biden has shown an ability to rally the party, and plenty of progressives, like Bowman, still have faith in the president, and believe he could come around on changing the filibuster.
“What I’ve learned from 10 months of working with the Biden administration—he’s methodical, he’s deliberate, and he has a process,” Bowman said, “even though those of us who are a bit more progressive may want him to move faster.”
Advocates like the NAACP’s Johnson, however, are urging that the entire agenda Democrats are fighting for will be at risk if there is no progress on voting reforms.
“As long as the anti-voting rights bills passed throughout the country continue to stand, every Democratic policy priority, from health care to climate change, is in serious jeopardy,” he said.
Johnson continued that 81 million Americans—Biden’s popular vote share—voted for change that “simply cannot be delivered without democracy reform.”
“Access to the ballot is responsible for every inch of progress made in this country, and leaders must treat voting reform with the urgency it demands,” he said.