Democracy is in crisis. The filibuster is blocking a solution.

David Goldman/N&O file photo
·3 min read

Over the years, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina’s state legislature have advanced injurious legislation that curbs voting access in the name of “election integrity.” They have, on multiple occasions, passed suppressive voter ID laws and gerrymandered maps that rob some North Carolinians of their voice at the polls. And some have sowed distrust in our electoral processes by dispensing false claims about election fraud.

With Republican-led state legislatures across the country ushering in new anti-voter laws and aggressively manipulated maps, Democrats in Congress have spent the better part of a year attempting to pass historic legislation aimed at expanding voting access and reducing voter suppression. The latest of those efforts, now combined into one bill titled the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act,” passed the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday and heads to the Senate, where it faces a significant obstacle: the filibuster.

The bill could be transformative in a state like North Carolina, where politicians have tried to restrict the right to vote far more than they’ve tried to protect it. It would create standards for early voting and require all mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within seven days to be counted — both things that North Carolina Republicans have tried to target in the past. It would make voter registration easier by requiring online voter registration, same-day voter registration on Election Day and automatic voter registration at state motor vehicle agencies. It would outlaw partisan gerrymandering, and establish specific redistricting criteria for fair maps.

Legislation of this caliber is desperately needed to combat the assault Republicans are waging on voting rights and elections across the country. If passed, the bill would prohibit states from enacting laws that make voting harder. Unfortunately, it’s all but doomed under the current Senate rules, which require a 60-vote threshold, rather than a simple majority, to bring legislation to a vote.

It’s become increasingly clear that voting protections are out of the question unless the rules are changed. This is the fifth attempt by Democrats to consider voting rights legislation in the Senate in the last year. Each time, Republicans — including North Carolina’s own U.S. senators — used the filibuster to block debate and prevent the bills from ever reaching the floor.

Up until now, the Editorial Board has had mixed feelings about the filibuster, which places valuable constraints on the majority party, but has also been an obstacle to change. We still believe Democrats shouldn’t ditch the filibuster completely unless they’re willing to accept the potential consequences of doing so — such as what could happen if Republicans take control of Congress in the upcoming midterms.

They should, however, attempt a carve-out: exempting voting rights bills from the 60-vote threshold, giving the bill a fighting chance to become law. Voting rights are beyond politics, and the protection of the basic threads of our democracy calls for an exception. The right to vote is one of those threads, and any political cost associated with pushing this bill through is surely lower than the cost of not getting it done.

But even a carve-out is going to be hard to accomplish, as not every Senate Democrat is on board and Republicans are united against it. It’s unlikely, but our senators should reconsider. Sens. Tillis and Burr have spoken about protecting the vote before, yet remain opposed to measures that would do exactly that.

“State legislators can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities. If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority,” President Joe Biden said in a speech Tuesday.

We agree. Urgent moments call for urgent action. Republicans’ refusal to defend democracy has this crisis. Congress must act to fix it.

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