On Jan. 11, President Biden endorsed eliminating the filibuster in the case of voting rights legislation. The filibuster is a Senate tradition that allows for the minority party in Congress to block any legislation that fails to reach 60 votes in its favor. Democrats hope to pass one bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, this month, which would make Election Day a holiday, block mail-in voting restriction efforts, stop state legislators from redrawing districts in a way that limits the representation of minority voters and more. With the filibuster intact, however, Republicans will be able to block the bill.
Daniel Lipson, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at SUNY New Paltz, explained why Republicans have been focused on preventing people from voting; “a collision of forces, all pushed by a certain faction of conservative activists is aimed at having Republicans win elections by suppressing the right to vote for key democratic constituencies, especially the youth vote, the African American vote, and the Latinx vote. Protecting the right to vote by having national legislation that guarantees the right to mail in voting, the right to early voting, the right to vote even for poor people who don’t have photo identification and on and on, is incredibly important to enable our democracy to continue to be a democracy.” In 2021, 19 states passed 34 laws restricting voting, with some of the most brutal legislation enacted in key battleground states likes Texas, Georgia and Florida.
Although Democrats hold the majority in Congress, they have been unable to pass voting rights reform to counter voting rights restrictions passed by Republicans on state levels. This is due to every single one of the 50 Republican Senators voting together to block the voting rights bills, either because they believe in blocking voting rights legislation, or because they’re under tremendous pressure by powerful forces within the Republican Party’s coalition to do so. While the filibuster remains enact, it would require 10 of the 50 Republicans to vote in favor of the voting rights legislation to protect it from being filibustered, something that appears impossible with the current state of the GOP.
“Sadly, the United States Senate, designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, has been rendered a shell of its former self,” Biden, a Senate institutionalist, said in his speech where he took his first hard stance on eliminating the filibuster for voting rights legislation. While Biden did not call on eliminating the filibuster completely, he supports “getting rid of” it in the case of passing voting rights reform. In order to do so, all 50 of the Democrats in the Senate must support the Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and declare that voting rights laws cannot be filibustered. However, two of the more conservative Democratic Senators, Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have stated they will not give Schumer their support. Manchin stated that the Senate needs “some good rule changes to make the place work better, but getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better.”
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky threatened the Democratic party should they try to change the filibuster rule. “Since Senator Schumer is hellbent on trying to break the Senate, Republicans will show how this reckless action would have immediate consequences,” McConnell said.
McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees when he was Senate majority leader as the only way to push through Justice Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett onto the Supreme Court. Now, as the minority leader, he does not have the filibuster as a tool to block Biden and Senate Democrats from pushing through one of their Supreme Court nominations. Opponents to getting rid of the filibuster argue that when a party is in the minority, they will want the filibuster intact so they can block the opposing party’s legislation, but Lipson explained that there’s a bigger, existential issue regarding the filibuster.
“It’s not the norm, and in countries around the world it’s very much an outlier. The more that experts have been sharing the motivations behind it, the clearer it’s become that the filibuster originated as a tool for a white supremacist minority, called the Solid South, to block the majority of civil rights legislation,” Lipson said. “It was one major tool that pretty much continued the oppression of African Americans in terms of voting rights, protection against lynchings, and in ending segregation. The filibuster was a pivotal tool for this minority faction to basically delay African American civil rights for decades. We see the filibuster has largely been used for similar purposes now, half a century later.”
In addition to being eliminated for Supreme Court nominations in 2017, the filibuster was eliminated by Republicans for lower court confirmations, and for top, cabinet level and related Presidential picks by the Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Since 2013, it’s been eliminated for passing the budget and for budget related measures like Obamacare. Lipson pointed out, “We’re seeing the filibuster in place for fewer and fewer functions of the Senate already. So, it’s not like eliminating it for voting rights legislation would change our lives that much more. For those reasons, it’s clear to 48 out of 50 Democrats that this is the right thing to do.”
Biden’s speech was intended to apply pressure on the two Senators to support the filibuster rule change to pass the voting rights bills. Senators Sinema and Manchin don’t seem receptive to this pressure, and their refusal to get rid of the filibuster coupled with all 50 Republican Senators voting together against the voting rights bills will ensure they do not get passed.
“The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them,” Biden said. “Simple as that.”
Lipson noted that, “The reality is that all 50 Republican senators are obstructing basic, common legislation simply because the Republican Party can’t win fair and square. The only way that Republicans have a shot of winning right now is by suppressing the number of the opposition because frankly, more and more voters prefer Democrats than Republicans. So, their only way to win is to interfere with democracy and artificially reduce the number of the other team, because otherwise the other team would win the popularity contest called voting. A lot of this was enabled by a conservative takeover of the Supreme Court in the form of case called Shelby County v. Holder; in which the Supreme Court pretty much forced the federal government to stop overseeing certain states in the South for voting rights violations. This has pretty much given the green light to some of these states like Texas and Georgia to just unleash the full force of their voter suppression.”
Another voting reform bill Democrats hope to pass, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore some anti-discrimination components this Supreme Court decision stripped away.
Without voting reform bills to counter voter suppression, the Republican party has a greater chance of regaining control of one or both chambers of Congress. Their efforts to suppress the vote have been spurred on by Donald Trump’s false claims about misconduct in the 2020 election and have increased widespread mistrust in the integrity of U.S. democracy.
Lipson predicts that damage a radicalized Republican Congress can do in the short term may make it so if they regain power, it won’t be for long, “I would say with my crystal ball, we will see a serious likelihood that Democrats would not have to wait that long before they retook control over the House and the Senate, due to the damage done by the increasingly radicalized Republican Party.”
For now, Americans wait to see how Congress will change in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, as the filibuster remains in place and voting rights legislation fails to be passed.