Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is taking the most significant step yet in the Democrats’ push to pass voting rights legislation.
In a letter to members of the Senate on Monday, the Democratic leader said that the Senate would once again take up the issue, and if legislation were to be blocked by Republicans once again he warned that his caucus would move to begin debate on a change to the chamber’s filibuster rule.
Two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, are on the record as opposing any changes to the filibuster that would allow legislation such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple 51-vote majority. They have never faced the prospect of a looming vote on the issue, however, and will now face the most significant pressure yet from leaders of their own party, including potentially President Joe Biden.
“Over the coming weeks, the Senate will once again consider how to perfect this union and confront the historic challenges facing our democracy. We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us. But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections,” reads the letter from Mr Schumer.
“We must ask ourselves: if the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the State level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?” it continued.
Senate Democrats have laboured for months to pass some form of legislation aimed at protecting access to the ballot box for voters across the country, battling gerrymandering, and fighting unaccountable money in politics. Their efforts have come up short thus far, thanks to unified GOP opposition, a 50-50 divide in the chamber, and resistance from Ms Sinema and Mr Manchin to changes to the filibuster.
States around the country are currently in the process of redrawing districts, which in many states is leading to less competitive races that protect incumbents. It is expected currently to give Republicans an advantage as they seek control of the House, due to their greater control of state legislatures. Experts warn that legislation must take effect quickly for effective legal challenges to be mounted across the country in an effort to halt the trend of gerrymandering, which both parties engage in but gives the GOP an advantage due to their greater control of state governments.
The lack of progress on the issue last year prompted activists from Arizona to launch a hunger strike, first with the intention of meeting with Ms Sinema and later outside the White House as a means of pressuring Mr Biden to action. The group halted their strike in recent days after meeting with Mr Biden’s team, but had pledged to resume their strike if meaningful progress was not made on the issue before Martin Luther King Jr Day.
"Changing the rules of Senate, as has been done over 160 times in Senate history, is not radical - what's radical are the attacks on our democracy by dark money, partisan gerrymandering, and restrictions on our freedom to vote. This is not a partisan issue, it's an American issue, and that's why young conservatives, independents, and liberals all agree that we must pass the Freedom To Vote Act by any means necessary,” said a spokesperson for the hunger strikers, Shana Gallagher of UN-PAC.
“[W]e remind our Senators and President Biden that we are committed to escalating our tactics once again should the Freedom To Vote Act not have passed by MLK Day,” she added.
The group was joined in December by Harvard University professor Larry Lessig, a longtime US elections reform activist, who warned at the time in an interview with The Independent that Democrats only had weeks to pass meaningful legislation that would go into effect before the 2022 midterms.
Mr Biden, a longtime supporter of the filibuster as a former senator himself, came out in support of a carve-out of the rule for the purpose of passing voting rights legislation last month.
"If the only thing standing between getting voting rights legislation passed and not getting passed is the filibuster, I support making the exception of voting rights for the filibuster," he told ABC News.
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