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Senate Republicans block voting rights bill as pressure builds for filibuster reform

GOP pushes nationwide campaign to undermine ballot access while White House resists changes to procedural rules

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 20 October 2021 22:12 BST
Senator Angus King warns American democracy hangs in balance with voting rights legislation

Senate Republicans have once again blocked debate and a vote on another voting rights bill, killing chances of any federal safeguards against a wave of voting restrictions across the US.

Voting rights advocates and a growing push from lawmakers have urged Democratic senators to dismantle filibuster rules that have obstructed critical parts of President Joe Biden’s agenda and threaten to undermine the right to vote.

After GOP lawmakers universally rejected attempts to standardise ballot access and eliminate long-standing barriers to voting on two other attempts, Senate Democrats prepared a more-limited “compromise” bill – with the backing of Senator Joe Manchin, who opposed the twice-rejected For the People Act – as an antidote to state-level, Republican-led restrictions on ballot access ahead of critical midterm elections and a redistricting cycle that could redraw political boundaries for the next decade.

Senate Democrats needed the support of at least 10 Republicans to reach a 60-vote threshold to break the filibuster. On 20 October, all 50 Senate Republicans invoked another filibuster, preventing lawmakers from moving forward a voting rights bill for a third time this year.

Meanwhile, the White House has come under fire for falling painfully short to protect voting rights, and President Biden has resisted calls to pressure lawmakers to blow up the filibuster.

The Freedom to Vote Act proposes nationwide standards for early and mail-in voting, safeguards against partisan gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, and the creation of Election Day as a public holiday, among other measures.

It also includes Senator Manchin’s demands for nationwide voter ID standards, which would allow voters to present a broad set of identifying documents before they can cast a ballot.

Republicans – who have waged a nationwide campaign to interrogate “election integrity” after Donald Trump failed to overturn the results of the 2020 election on spurious claims of voter fraud, which fuelled an attack on the Capitol to overturn those votes – have also called for voter ID standards.

But Senate Republicans have repeatedly insisted that the federal government has no role in elections administration.

In remarks after the vote on 20 October, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Republicans’ objection an “implicit endorsement” of voter suppression attempts.

“The Republican strategy now appears to be … to limit voter participation,” Senator Angus King, an Independent who joined Senate Democrats to help negotiate the bill, told reporters earlier this month. “I don’t think Republicans here are interested in short circuiting what their brothers and sisters are doing across the country.”

At least 19 states have enacted 33 restrictive voting laws this year, as of September, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice.

States also are beginning the once-a-decade redrawing of political maps for the first time since the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1964, without federal oversight to prevent racial discrimination at the polls.

Senator Schumer said he will attempt to bring up the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to a vote next week.

That legislation aims to revive and strengthen the law against racially discriminatory voting laws after a pair of US Supreme Court rulings undermined key elements of the landmark civil rights law.

Senator King is the latest lawmaker to support changes to filibuster rules, arguing that “Democracy is more important than Senate rule”, on 19 October.

“A lot of this will be determined by the attitude and approach of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema,” he said, pointing to two Democratic senators who have resisted filibuster reform, with the future of voting rights hinging on their support. Those changes could pass with a simple majority in an evenly divided senate.

Despite his insistence that protecting and expanding the right to vote remains a “test of our time” and a definitive battle for his presidency, President Biden has not taken up the call among voting rights and civil groups groups and progressive advocates to push lawmakers for filibuster reform.

“The administration is continuing to press for voting rights legislation to safeguard our democracy from these historic threats to constitutional freedoms and the integrity of elections through legislation, executive actions, outreach, the bully pulpit, and all other means available,” according to a White House statement issued on 18 October.

“Enough is enough,” Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy at progressive group Indivisible, said in a statement. “The filibuster has done nothing but erode our democracy and lead us into minority rule. Senate Democrats must use the majority voters gave them, eliminate the filibuster, and protect our democracy before it’s too late.”

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