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Defend Voting Rights, Abolish the Filibuster

by Andrew Cohen

Mar 5, 2021 | Opinion, Politics

Samantha Lai


After the impeachment and acquittal of Donald Trump, we now confront the Republican party we have—not the one the nation needs, not the one we grew up with, and certainly not the one moored to conservative principles or moral judgment or even shame. Once Republicans stopped competing for votes through policy, once they resorted to rigging elections though voter suppression, trying to win by ensuring that fewer citizens could vote, they were ripe and ready for Trump.

Still, by refusing to hold Trump accountable for his “Big Lie” about election fraud, aligning with anti-democratic forces, and gaslighting the nation about January 6th and the takeover of the U.S. Capitol, they’ve made it easier for those still tethered to reality to support the prompt passage of two major pro-democracy bills. The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act are both worthy of ending the filibuster’s reign over the Senate.

The For the People Act would make it easier for citizens to register to vote and guarantee early-voting days. It would ban partisan gerrymandering, taking a step toward eliminating the election of insurrectionists to Congress. The John Lewis Act, aptly named for one of the heroes of the long struggle for voting rights, responds at last to the calamitous Supreme Court 2013 ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act by removing remedies intended to prevent voter discrimination. And both bills strengthen democracy at a time when its very premise is under siege.

Senate Democrats should exercise their newly acquired majority for the sake of the Republic. The partisanship that protects a lawless president or manipulates the makeup of the Supreme Court has led us to the authoritarian brink; partisanship on behalf of these popular measures will help steer the country back to first principles. It’s past time for both parties to acknowledge the American people consistently support election reform and voting rights.

Broad pro-democracy reforms will help insulate the nation from the sort of shady tactics that marked the run-up to the November election and the baseless conspiracy theories that emerged in the wake of the vote. We also need to fix voting rights and election systems in 2021 because things will likely only get worse in 2022. Researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice have established that lawmakers in 43 states have endorsed more than 250 bills that would make it harder for citizens to vote—over seven times the number of voter suppression bills introduced around this time last year.

Some Republicans want to restrict mail-in voting. Others want to reduce the number of polling stations. In Arizona, which Trump lost, there is a proposed bill to give legislators the power to overrule state election officials and the popular vote. In Pennsylvania, another state Trump lost, Republican lawmakers have introduced 14 voter suppression measures.

These measures send the same signal local GOP officials send when they censure or otherwise punish the few Republican members of Congress brave enough to stand up to the Trumpists. If anything, state and local GOP officials are even more in thrall to Trumpists’ authoritarian agenda than most Republican senators, and they are more committed to suppressing votes and undermining nonpartisan election rules. Given this harsh reality, it is unlikely that Biden will find the ten votes among the GOP caucus in the Senate needed to pass the For the People Act or the John Lewis Act over a Republican filibuster.

And the president should say so. If a divided nation can unify around one thing, he should say, it is that our elections need to be safer and more secure. If the 2020 election taught us anything, he should say, it is that every person who has a right to vote should be able to do so and have confidence that vote will be counted accurately. If the failed insurrection and its coddling by congressional Republicans has taught us anything, he should add, it is that we must restore and reinvigorate democracy so that those who would destroy it will be held accountable.

The White House and congressional Democrats should move forward knowing the risk that their opponents will dredge up all the tired, (often racist) lies about voter fraud. They should move forward knowing that the constitutionality of the reform measures may ultimately be decided by a Supreme Court that has moved hard to the right. But the bigger risk is doing nothing, and having Democratic majorities swept away in 2022 because of gerrymandering and voter suppression.

Abolish the filibuster. Convince reluctant Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema that the path to a vigorous democracy lies in protecting voting rights and election systems right now.

Let these two landmark bills be the response to Trump and his enablers on Capitol Hill. When they turned to political violence and threats, others turned to the ballot box. When they moved to overthrow an election, and the Constitution, others moved to protect the vote and give to more citizens the right to choose those who would govern them.

Andrew Cohen is the legal affairs correspondent for The Washington Spectator. An earlier version of this piece appeared in New York Magazine.

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