Constitutional rights are the exception

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From South Carolina’s Lowcountry to the suburbs of New York City, we represent much of the diversity that is America. In many ways, we reflect the multiracial, multi-generational coalition that came together last year to deliver Democratic control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Beyond our generational and regional differences, there’s something we share with most Americans: an acute understanding of the crisis our democracy faces, and the bold, urgent action needed to save it before it’s too late.

Since the 2020 election, we have witnessed nearly 400 voter-suppression bills introduced in 48 states — and nearly 30 enacted in 17 states — aimed at making it more difficult for communities of color to effectively participate in our democracy. It is clear that these attacks on the franchise are in retaliation for the 2020 elections, which saw significant increases in voter participation. Nearly two-thirds of estimated eligible voters cast a ballot in last year’s presidential election — the highest turnout in 40 years. This was due, in part, to accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead of continuing and improving voter enfranchisement and strengthening our democracy, Republican legislators are using the “Big Lie” that led to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection as justification to make it harder for some Americans to vote, while making it easier for politicians to manipulate election outcomes. Dozens of states have advanced bills that allow election officials to restrict early voting, tighten voter ID requirements, require notarized signatures for absentee balloting, limit mail-in voting, expand the power of partisan elected officials over election administration, and even make it a crime to hand out water to folks waiting in line. Republicans are boasting that these measures, along with partisan redistricting, will position them to win a majority in the House of Representatives in 2022.

While Republicans hype the nonexistent threats of voter fraud and voter impersonation, they are creating a very real threat to our democracy. President Biden recognized this reality in his address on voting rights earlier this month. He acknowledged what many of us in the decades-old fight for unfettered access to the ballot already know: this assault is not new, it just looks different. The question now is whether we have the courage to do what it takes to defeat it.

That’s why we agree that, with our democracy on the line, the Senate must create an exception to the filibuster for legislation concerning voting and other constitutional rights. We allow a simple majority in the Senate to advance legislation during budget reconciliation to protect the country’s financial security. We ought to make the same exception when people’s constitutional rights are in question. 

In an ideal world, protecting American democracy would still enjoy the broad, bipartisan support that was common not so long ago. Just 15 years ago, in 2006, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act on a near-unanimous vote in both the House and the Senate. One of us was in Congress to vote for that bill. The other marched on Washington in support of its passage as a youth leader in the NAACP.

Unfortunately, instead of protecting the right to vote, today Republicans at every level of government are leading the assault on this fundamental right. And, nearly 60 years after Jim Crow laws were repealed, we find ourselves on the precipice of a new Jim Crow — rooted every bit as much in racism and bigotry as its predecessor.

It is for these reasons that we can’t afford to wait for bipartisan support to act. The 15th Amendment passed on a party-line vote, and without it, we and those who look like us would not have the right to vote. Bipartisanship can be good, but it is not required to do what is necessary to protect the voting rights of all Americans. 

Earlier this month, we observed the first anniversary of the passing of our colleague and civil rights icon John Lewis. In an essay published days after his passing, Congressman Lewis wrote, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

We could not agree more. The right to vote is more fragile today than it has been in generations. But, as federal elected officials, we are not powerless to protect it. In fact, Article 1 Section 4 of the Constitution, The Federalist Papers #59, and the United States Supreme Court have made our power clear.

We understand that President Biden does not have a vote in the United States Senate, but he has a voice. We are hopeful he will use his voice to not only denounce the threats to our democracy, but to also call for the only solution that meets the moment: a constitutional rights exception to the filibuster.

History can hardly fault us if we do everything we can and still fail. But history can hardly forgive us if we never try. 

James E. Clyburn is the House majority whip and Mondaire Jones represents New York’s 17th District and is a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Tags Election law Joe Biden John Lewis Voter suppression Voter turnout Voting Rights Act

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