A civil rights bill central to expanding 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.”
President Joe Biden 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.
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.