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It’s coming down to the wire for democracy in the United States. The next insurrection won't come from crowds trying to breach the halls of power, but those working within them. Voting rights and election integrity are under assault in several states where Republican legislatures last year enacted an unprecedented number of restrictive laws to suppress voting and undermine elections. More such laws are in the works this year.
The best hope for the health and longevity of our democratic institutions is for Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Together these important bills will protect against the erosion of trust in elections and ensure that American democracy does not perish from the earth.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore and strengthen a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to pre-clear changes in election procedures with the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court. And many of the provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act — early voting, vote by mail, automatic voter registration and independent redistricting — have been used successfully in California and other states to strengthen voter participation. More important, it would set standards on basic voter access and stop efforts in states to subvert the election process.
But passing this legislation is now looking like an impossible feat. Though congressional Republicans have supported voting rights in the past, they have made it clear they aren’t interested now. They either don’t see the threat from the deluge of restrictions at the state level, or don’t care.
Democrats alone have been left with the responsibility to act in defense of democracy. The House has done its part by passing voting rights bills. But the effort has stalled in the Senate — where the Democrats have control only through Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote — and may well be doomed.
Frustratingly, while Senate Democrats have the votes to pass these essential bills, but they don't have enough to call a vote. It’s absurd but the Senate's filibuster rule requires 60 votes in order to advance legislation. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had said he would consider suspending the filibuster by Monday if Republicans continue to block a vote on voting rights legislation. (Which we support — this obstructive and anti-democratic tool has turned the Senate into a place where good legislation goes to die and ought to be put down permanently.)
But Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, though they say they support the voting rights bills, are refusing to remove the filibuster to pass them. It's beyond infuriating that these two are prepared to support an obscure Senate rule that most people don't care about over the fate of the nation.
It's not entirely fair that Sinema and Manchin have become the villains of the moment. Indeed, that label belongs to every Republican senator too craven and fearful of a political backlash to stand up for what they must know is the best course of action. As unfair as it may be to Democrats, any Republican who breaks ranks with their party to support the passage of voting protections would likely go down in the history books as American heroes.
We could use some political heroism right now. There's so much more at stake than the next election. In just the first few months of 2021, 148 bills were proposed in dozens of states that would allow state legislatures to "politicize, criminalize or interfere with elections," according to a report by a trio of nonpartisan organizations that support democracy. Hundreds more were filed in the months since. In a speech about voting rights Wednesday, President Biden referenced a recent law passed in Georgia that prohibits the distribution of food or water to people waiting in line to vote. "That's not America," he said.
Well, not yet. But it may be in the near future. The effort to pass laws to suppress voting or subvert elections continues. Here are some of the bad ideas being proposed: inserting people aligned with a political party into the election review process and empowering state legislatures to overturn presidential election results even after certification by election officials. It requires little imagination to envision how these new laws may be used to thwart outcomes that the party in power doesn't like. Even if these new laws aren't used nefariously, they will further whittle down the public’s trust in elections. If people don’t trust that elections are fair and accurate (and many already don’t) our democracy will be lost.
For all the rhetoric, the voting reforms proposed by Democrats and backed by scholars who support strong democratic institutions, aren't revolutionary. They would ensure that Americans in all states would have voting rights protections.
“This is one of the moments that will be remembered in history books," said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Did we save democracy or let it go down the tubes?”
President Biden and Schumer have vowed to keep fighting to protect voting rights. They must do so as long as there's a chance to save our democracy.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.