Voting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here?
In a moment reminiscent of the 1963 March on Washington, last week voting rights activists joined the family of Martin Luther King, Jr. to march across Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge near the U.S. Capitol to demand action. But nearly 60 years after Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech on the National Mall, the Senate failed to protect Americans’ freedom to vote.
Despite Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) best efforts, a Hail Mary speech delivered by President Joe Biden in Atlanta, and grassroots organizing across the country, including over 100,000 constituent calls from our members at Stand Up America, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act failed to pass the upper chamber. Obstruction was expected from Senate Republicans who echo Trump’s election lies and fear that when every eligible American votes, they lose. But Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who claim to support voting rights legislation, decided to prioritize the filibuster over the freedom to vote, despite readily approving an exception to the filibuster just last month to raise the debt ceiling.
The Senate’s inaction, enabled by Manchin and Sinema’s historic dereliction of duty, will have a profound impact on voting access and the trajectory of our democracy for years to come. In 2021 alone, 19 states passed more than 34 laws that undermine the freedom to vote. These anti-voter laws purge voters from the rolls, enact strict voter ID requirements, limit early voting options, reduce the number of polling places in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, and allow trusted election officials to be replaced with partisan actors.
Texans are already seeing the effects of the voter suppression law passed there last year, as up to half of vote-by-mail applications are being rejected in some counties because of new restrictions. It’s no accident that these Republican-sponsored laws disportionately hurt voters of color as well as poor, young, and disabled voters. Republicans are trying to win elections by choosing their voters and excluding everyone else.
After last week’s vote in the Senate, it’s clearer than ever that we must elect leaders who will put our democracy and voting rights first. There are several opportunities this year to replace senators who failed our democracy last week with real democracy champions, from Florida and Pennsylvania to North Carolina and Wisconsin. Supporting filibuster reform has become a litmus test for Democratic primary voters, and, both moderate and progressive Democratic Senate candidates, including former Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer and Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, have embraced the position. Flipping just two Senate seats could clear the way to reforming the filibuster and finally passing voting rights legislation.
And the need to elect democracy champions this year goes well beyond the Senate. Trump-backed Republicans are threatening the very heart of our democracy by targeting election administration roles at the local and state levels, including secretary of state positions. They’re trying to put extreme, partisan actors into election administration roles who would be willing to ignore the will of the voters. It is hard to overstate the threat this poses to American democracy. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we support pro-democracy candidates for secretary of state, state attorney general, and other critical roles that oversee our elections to ensure that we protect voting access and that every vote is counted and honored.
But we cannot wait until November to defend our freedom to vote. The Senate’s inaction on voting rights will embolden Republican state legislators across the country, who will continue to introduce legislation aimed at suppressing the vote and replacing election officials with partisan actors. We must fight each one of those bills tooth and nail in legislatures and in the courts. At the same time, we must expand access to the ballot box at the local and state levels wherever we can through legislatures and ballot proposals. There are opportunities this year for blue and purple states to strengthen voting rights, as Nevada, New York, Connecticut, and other states did over the past year by restoring voting rights for formerly-incarcerated Americans, expanding vote-by-mail, and enacting automatic voter registration.
Despite the devastating setback last week in the Senate, we have no choice but to keep fighting and organizing to protect the freedom to vote, just as generations that came before us did. We will continue the struggle for as long as it takes because the stakes for our democracy are too high to take no for an answer.
Sean Eldridge is founder and president of Stand Up America, a group that seeks to expand voting rights and build a more representative democracy.
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