A civil rights bill central to expand voting rights across the US – and Democrats’ best chance of an antidote against a wave of restrictive voting laws proposed in nearly every state – has failed in Congress.
As expected, Senate Republicans universally rejected a procedural move to begin debate on the For The People Act, effectively killing the bill, and galvanising Democrats, the White House and voting rights advocates around a nationwide campaign to combat voter suppression.
Before the vote, the White House warned that “democracy is in peril” and that the right to vote “is under assault with an intensity and an aggressiveness we have not seen in a long time.”
“It was the suppression of a bill to end voter suppression – another attack on voting rights that is sadly not unprecedented,” President Joe Biden said in a statement after the vote.
The president has pledged to use his bully pulpit to advocate for voting rights, dispatching Vice President Kamala Harris to meet with activists and lawmakers to enfranchise voters. In a rare move, she presided over the Senate vote on Tuesday.
But the For The People Act – a sweeping measure that would standardise voting access at the federal level, eliminate long-standing barriers to voting and allow candidates with smaller platforms to wield more political power – was doomed to fail against GOP obstruction and a coordinated campaign in the wake of 2020 elections and Donald Trump’s persistent lie of a “stolen election” that saw dozens of Republican state lawmakers advance partisan efforts to restrict access to the ballot.
Within the first few months of 2021, Republican state lawmakers filed nearly 400 restrictive voting bills in nearly every state.
The Senate needed to reach 60 votes to break the filibuster, rather than a simple majority or party-line vote to proceed. A vote on whether to begin debate before a vote on the bill failed along party lines, with all 50 Democrats and Democrat-leaning senators supporting it, and all Republicans against it.
Republicans also relied on the filibuster to block a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol riot, fuelled by the former president’s conspiracy theories and attempts to overturn millions of American votes.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly said that “every option” would remain on the table to secure the For The People Act’s passage – adding that “failure is not an option.”
But Democrats have failed to secure support to overturn filibuster rules, effectively ceding control of a marginally Democratically controlled Congress and the fate of the president’s agenda to the “bipartisan” ambitions of centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema along with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans.
“Are we going to backslide here in the 21st century?” Senator Schumer said in remarks before the vote. “Are we going to let reactionary state legislatures drag us back into the muck of voter suppression?”
He urged Republicans to reject the former president’s ongoing attempts to undermine the results of the 2020 election and spurious legal battle to toss out ballots that emboldened Republican state lawmakers to do what Mr Trump and his attorneys could not.
“Do not let this man lead you around by the nose and do permanent damage to our democracy,” he said.
Despite Republican objections, the contents of the For The People Act have broad bipartisan support among American voters, with GOP senators reflecting only a minority opinion on proposals like national standards for mail-in voting.
The For The People Act proposes automatic voter registration, at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections, and national standards for mail-in voting and drop boxes for absentee ballots. It would also make it more difficult to purge voters from voter rolls, restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people and end partisan gerrymandering.
The measure would also require “dark money” groups and super PACs to publicly disclose their donors, and establish a voluntary public financing plan for federal campaigns – but not financed by taxpayers, despite Republican claims – in an effort to level the playing field among PAC-backed candidates and people without access to a powerful donor pool.
Within the first few months of 2021, GOP lawmakers have filed nearly 400 bills in nearly every state to roll back voting by mail, impose strict voter ID requirements, cut back on early voting hours and criminalise handing out food and water in long lines at polling places.
Of those measures, at least 14 states have enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to the ballot, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.
A parallel effort from GOP lawmakers has seen more than 200 bills in 41 states that give themselves more authority over the electoral process, according to the States United Democracy Center. At least 24 of those bills have been signed into law in 14 states.
Despite support from presidents of both parties since its passage in 1965, Senator McConnell also plans to reject a restoration of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights measure that the US Supreme Court gutted in 2013, allowing states to enact election policies without federal reviews despite their histories of discrimination.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote against so-called “preclearance” provisions for the court’s 5-4 opinion, writing that “things have changed dramatically” following the Voting Rights Act’s passage, suggesting that discriminatory laws were a thing of the past.
After passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department rejected more than 1,000 proposed changes to voting laws to prevent discriminatory outcomes.
But after the high court’s ruling, states closed hundreds of polling places, disproportionately targeting areas with voters of colour, and GOP lawmakers have filed scores of restrictive voting laws – culminating in a massive, right-wing lobby-backed campaign to flood state legislatures with copycat bills to “right the wrongs of November.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar called the bills “real efforts to disenfranchise Americans.”
“Our democracy desperately needs the proposals in this bill,” she said in remarks from the Senate floor before the vote.
Senator McConnell has rejected those characterisations, arguing that there is no democratic crisis in the US. Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker said that it is a “myth and a lie that voting rights are under attack.”
“Voter suppression has become part of the platform of the Republican Party,” Senator Schumer said in his remarks after the vote. “The fight to protect voting rights is not over. ... In the fight for voting rights, this bill was the starting gun, not the finish line.”
After criticism from voting rights advocates and progressives demanding that the president do more to protect ballot access and reject GOP obstruction, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that the president will “engage with voting rights groups” and state legislatures that support expanding voting rights, and “continue to fight to get legislation across the finish line on the federal level.”
“No matter the outcome today, it is going to continue,” she said.
The US Department of Justice will double the number of attorneys in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and scrutinise new state laws that make it more difficult to vote.
In his remarks on 11 June defending the federal government’s role protecting the right to vote, Attorney General Merrick Garland outlined the history of the Justice Department and the nation’s long progress towards combatting voting discrimination.
Mr Biden said he will “have more to say” on his administration’s efforts next week.
“I’ve been engaged in this work my whole career, and we are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again – for the people, for our very democracy,” he said.