Don’t despair over the Senate: a new voting rights law has never been closer | David Litt

This week, the For the People Act – the most sweeping voting-rights legislation in more than 50 years – came before the United States Senate, a place known, especially to itself, as “world’s greatest deliberative body”. Yet Republican senators refused to even debate the measure. Despite having the support of every member of the Democratic majority – a group of 50 senators that represents 40 million more constituents than their Republican counterparts – the bill failed to reach the 60-vote threshold for breaking a filibuster. It didn’t even come close.

Given the stakes, it’s hardly surprising that some have rushed to portray For the People Act’s failure to pass the Senate as a political setback, a strategic misstep, or a presidency-defining blunder.

But such doomsday thinking ignores the big picture. Of course democracy advocates are disappointed – in theory, the Senate just blew a big chance to protect the republic from the greatest onslaught of authoritarianism the United States has ever faced. In practice, however, no voting-rights bill was ever going to pass the Senate on the first try. The important question has never been whether the For the People Act will win over 10 Republicans. The question is whether 50 Democrats can be convinced to end or alter the filibuster and then pass the For the People Act via a simple majority vote.

Seen through this lens, this week’s vote was a step forward, not backward. Major voting-rights legislation has never been closer to becoming law.

To understand why American democracy still has a fighting chance – and better-than-ever odds of prevailing – it’s important to consider three major developments, none of which was guaranteed when Democrats took the Senate with the slimmest of majorities six months ago.

The first is that, despite President Trump’s attempt to overturn a legitimate election, his party’s unwillingness to stop him, and a well-funded campaign to turn voters against the For the People Act, democracy remains popular with the American people. According to one recent poll, 71% of Americans believe in-person early voting should be made easier, 69% support establishing national guidelines for voting, and a majority support expanding vote-by-mail as well.

Joe Manchin
‘Joe Manchin, one of the filibuster’s most ardent defenders, joined voting-rights negotiations by proposing a version of the For the People Act he believes ought to receive substantial bipartisan support.’ Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Thanks to a smart compromise proposal from Senator Joe Manchin, Democrats have even robbed Republicans of their one popular (if disingenuous) talking point in the debate over elections: support for voter ID. Mitch McConnell, the Koch political organization, and their conservative allies were hoping to turn voting rights into a political liability for Democrats, thus encouraging their members to drop the subject. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Continuing the fight to protect democracy is the right thing to do – and for Democratic senators, it’s the politically sensible thing to do as well.

The moral and political case for protecting democracy has only been made more urgent by Republican overreach since the election. This wasn’t inevitable. In the wake of a closer-than-expected presidential race, and surprising strength in the House, state and local Republicans could have decided to appeal to moderate voters and enjoy their existing structural advantages, such as a rightwing majority on the supreme court and a large head start in the 2020 round of redistricting.

Instead, Republicans doubled down on Trump’s authoritarian impulses. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 389 bills restricting voting have been put forward in 48 states. These bills go far beyond previous voter suppression efforts, ensuring lengthy, public court battles and risking a backlash. Already, voting-restriction laws such as the one passed in Georgia have proven so audacious and so egregious that some of America’s largest corporations – who are rarely keen to criticize the GOP’s top priorities – have come out against them.

The business community lending its support to voting rights, even in the abstract, has in turn given on-the-fence Democrats more room to maneuver. West Virginia’s Manchin, one of the filibuster’s most ardent defenders, joined voting-rights negotiations by proposing a version of the For the People Act he believes ought to receive substantial bipartisan support – and strongly implying he’ll consider reforming the filibuster if his proposal does not receive the support he thinks it deserves. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, another filibuster holdout, has signaled a willingness to debate the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, even as she defends it. That leaves open the possibility that she may, eventually, support some kind of reform.

Even some Republicans have inched, however slowly and subtly, toward supporting voting rights. While the Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski didn’t vote to break the filibuster against the For the People Act, she went out of her way to say that she supported certain key aspects of the bill. If the filibuster were no longer an impediment – if democracy advocates were trying to get to 51 rather than 61 – Murkowski’s vote would likely be in play. As recently as 4 January, when Republicans seemed likely to hold the Senate, the idea of a sweeping, bipartisan bill to end voter suppression and expand voting rights seemed wildly farfetched. Today, it’s distinctly possible.

Of course, just because something is possible does not make it likely. Democrats are racing against the clock. Campaign season will soon be upon us. Given the age of many in their caucus, there’s a chance Democrats’ Senate majority will be cut grimly short by a premature retirement or death. Manchin, Sinema, and other lawmakers hoping to be prodded toward progress risk being too clever by half.

But on the other hand, the slow-but-steady approach might just work – if activists continue to apply public pressure; if state-level GOP politicians continue to egregiously attack the vote; if public attention remains focused on the health of our democracy; if 50 Democrats reach a compromise that preserves the filibuster while allowing life-and-death legislation to pass. None of these things is certain to happen. But none of them is outside the realm of possibility. And all of them are more likely in the wake of this week’s vote.

The path we’re on will never bring the sweeping, triumphant, day-one change that Democrats like me hoped for in the weeks before the election. But, in the face of threats that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, Americans may yet save their democracy. And saving democracy would be more than good enough.

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