Inside the Democrats' Bigger Strategy to Protect Voting Rights — and Get Past the Filibuster

WASHINGTON — Democracy dies live on C-SPAN.

That’s how it felt on Tuesday as the public watched Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and 49 other Senate Republicans use the filibuster to block any debate on the For the People Act, an 800-page mega-bill intended to combat dark money, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other ills plaguing American democracy. The parliamentary maneuver by McConnell and crew denied any opportunity to offer compromises on the floor and doomed the bill to defeat even though all 50 Senate Democrats voted in favor of the motion. 

But House and Senate Democrats are undeterred. They insist that Tuesday’s vote was the first step in a larger strategy. “We had to explore whether there’s any potential for bipartisan support for this kind of critical legislation,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who introduced the House version of the For the People Act, says. “We learned yesterday that it’s just not there. The lines have been drawn very clearly at this point.”

In interviews with Rolling Stone, lawmakers and staffers who work on voting rights and democracy reform described a multi-part, months-long game plan that will play out this summer and fall. The aim is to pass a new version of the For the People Act as well as a companion measure to be named after the late civil-rights leader and congressman John Lewis. That bill, known as H.R. 4, would restore a key pillar of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent future voting-rights discrimination.

“H.R. 4 builds the firehouse to put out fires in the future,” Sarbanes says. “[The For the People Act] is what we need in this moment to put out the fire that’s raging now.”

But is there a path forward for either bill with the filibuster as it now stands? And can Democrats agree on any specific reforms to the filibuster that could make democracy reform possible? 

For the People Act 2.0
Minutes after Republicans filibustered the For the People Act, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced that the Senate Rules Committee, which she chairs, would soon hold “a series of hearings on the urgent need to pass critical voting, campaign finance, and ethics reforms.” Klobuchar said the Rules Committee planned to travel to Georgia, where the state legislature passed restrictive new voting laws in March, to hear firsthand how Congress could help protect the right to vote in that state. 

Lawmakers and aides say these new hearings will be used to gather evidence that will go toward writing an updated, compromise version of the For the People Act. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) remains a pivotal vote on any future voting-rights reforms, and the three-page white paper he released last week will also help shape that compromise legislation, aides said.

In the weeks ahead, the Biden White House is also expected to take a more proactive role in pushing for new voting rights legislation. In a statement after Tuesday’s defeat, President Biden said the fight for voting rights was “far from over” and that “we are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again — for the people, for our very democracy.”

Biden has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris with spearheading the administration’s effort to pass new voting restrictions at a time when Republicans have passed nearly two-dozen voter-suppression bills at the state level, mostly on party-line votes. Some voting-rights activists have criticized the Biden administration and congressional Democrats for not playing a more aggressive role: “I have yet to see Democrats act like this is the No. 1 priority on their agenda, and I suspect that we will start to see that after today,” Nsé Ufot, head of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, told the New York Times

But a senior congressional aide says the White House’s engagement will ramp up considerably in the next phase of the campaign to protect voting rights as Democrats give up on trying to win over Republicans and instead focus on writing a compromise bill that, paired with changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules (more on that later), would give the For the People Act a path to passage.

Sarbanes tells Rolling Stone the next two months will be critical in finding that path. For the bill to take effect in time for the 2022 midterm elections, it needs to get out of Congress and onto President Biden’s desk before Congress takes its summer recess. “We can’t go home in August without this,” he says. “We want [the bill’s reforms] in place for redistricting, and we want them in place for voters who show up in 2022.”

The Battle to Restore the Voting Rights Act
Eight years ago this Friday, the Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling struck down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the civil rights movement’s landmark victories. Section 4 of that law created a program known as preclearance. Under preclearance, states with a documented history of racial discrimination at the ballot box had to get approval from the federal Justice Department’s civil rights division if they wanted to make changes to their voting laws. If the feds deemed those changes discriminatory, the Justice Department denied those proposed changes.

In his 2015 opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts deemed Section 4 unconstitutional. He argued in essence that policies that accounted for racial discrimination were just another form of discrimination themselves. He also deemed the problem of racial discrimination in voting as a thing of the past, and that evidence marshaled in Shelby was not sufficient to continue to let the Justice Department approve or deny new policies by the states.

House Democrats have a plan to restore Section 4. In the last session of Congress, they introduced H.R. 4, or the Voting Rights Advancement Act. They now intend to draft an updated version of that bill in the current session and name it after John Lewis. “Never did I think that the cause for which the Foot Soldiers marched so many years ago would become new again, but since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, lawmakers have ramped up their efforts to enact restrictive, anti-voter laws across the country,” Rep. Terri Newell (D-Ala.), a leader on the effort, tells Rolling Stone. “My bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would restore, strengthen, and modernize the VRA and prevent policies that restrict access to the ballot box.” She added, “Our democracy is at stake.”

The push to restore the Voting Rights Act is playing out on several fronts. This week, the House Administration Committee will convene the last of a series of field hearings held nationwide to collect evidence of the persistence of racial voter discrimination. Such evidence, the bill’s supporters say, will come in handy if the bill ultimately passes, faces a legal challenge, and winds up in front of the Supreme Court again. “This process is for a greater goal, that H.R. 4 is litigation-proof,” says Chris Kosteva, a spokesman for Rep. Newell. “We want to make sure this bill is iron-clad constitutionally.”

The other front is the drafting of the John Lewis bill itself. Once the House Administration Committee submits its final report with the evidence it found about continued racial voter disenfranchisement, the House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings and then begin writing the new John Lewis voting rights bill. Kosteva says it’s possible the bill will be introduced in September after the August recess.

But the fate of both this bill and the For the People Act hinges on whether Democrats can unite behind a plan to remove the parliamentary obstacle standing in their way: the filibuster.

Filibuster — or Bust
Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the two names that sit atop nearly every list of Democratic senators who oppose changing or abolishing the filibuster. Manchin has written op-eds and granted interviews in which he said he wouldn’t gut the filibuster. Sinema published a Washington Post op-ed the night before Tuesday’s For the People Act vote making the same argument as Manchin. In their view, doing away with the filibuster wouldn’t pave the way for democracy to flourish; it would, instead, do grave damage to America’s democratic system.

But behind closed doors, House and Senate aides say, there are more Democrats who oppose changing or abolishing the filibuster, possibly as many as seven or eight members. Democrats used the filibuster hundreds of times during the Trump years, and some are hesitant to give up the tool should they need it the next time Republicans have control of Congress.

The senior congressional aide says outright abolishing the filibuster is out of the question. But there are several options for more modest reforms under discussion in Congress. The first is enacting reforms that moderate Democratic senators have supported in the past. Manchin, for instance, has supported proposed rule changes in previous Senate sessions that would have lowered the threshold to 50 votes for a motion to proceed to debate, and that would force senators to take the floor and speak in order to sustain a filibuster, which would make filibusters far more laborious for those doing the filibustering and thus in theory a less attractive option. 

Another filibuster change with some support in the Democratic caucus would force the minority party to have at least 41 members physically present on the Senate floor to sustain a filibuster. And the final — and most dramatic change — would be to create a carve-out in the existing Senate rules so that issues related to voting and election could pass the Senate on a simple majority vote.

Outside pressure is mounting on Democratic senators to take up some of these reforms. A group of former congressional chiefs of staff circulated a letter calling on the Senate to change the filibuster so that bills like the For the People Act can pass. “Like any tool, the filibuster may be used to good ends,” the letter’s organizers write. “We know that repealing or reforming the filibuster rule will someday lead to policy outcomes that we deeply dislike.” They go on to write, “But we believe in a Senate where the people’s business can be done. The Senate is now faced with a choice between functioning and the filibuster.”

Groups focused on filibuster reform say they plan to ramp up their efforts in the hopes of clearing the way for democracy reform before the end of the summer. “The Republican commitment to unrepentant obstruction of even bipartisan proposals is on full display,” Tré Easton, a senior adviser with the anti-filibuster group Battle Born Collective, said in a statement. “The Democratic response cannot be unilateral disarmament.”

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