Despite Senate setbacks, the fight for voting rights is far from over
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the Senate’s failure to overcome a Republican filibuster of voting rights bills last week is a major disappointment to the Americans who make up the large and growing movement to protect democracy. This was a win for politicians who are so intent on keeping their grip on power that they are willing to restrict the ability of other Americans to participate in the most fundamental right of citizenship.
But while the success of the Republicans’ filibuster may have marked the end of the legislative road for the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in this Congress, it will not be the end of the story.
“We will win this fight,” Sen. Cory Booker said on the Senate floor last week. “I don’t know how long it will take, but that will be determined by how dedicated we are to the principles of this democracy.”
Voting rights advocates are students of history. We are keenly aware that there are setbacks with every monumental movement for change, and that those setbacks do not prevent forward progress. We know that filibusters blocked anti-lynching legislation for decades. We know that filibusters blocked civil rights laws for years. The equality and democracy movement persisted. And we will do so again.
Over the past year, a vibrant and expanding coalition activated Americans to demand the passage of new voter protections. Millions of people called Congress and the White House; thousands participated in marches and protests and vigils; hundreds were arrested demanding that our elected leaders demonstrate the same level of courage and commitment to their constituents.
Let’s be clear. This struggle was not about bragging rights for national politicians or organizations. The real victims of the voting rights filibuster are the people targeted by wave after wave of voting restrictions put in place by Republicans since the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act — Black and brown voters, students, people with disabilities. It is voters who are forced to decide whether they can take time away from their job or family to spend hours in a voting line. It is voters singled out by voter ID laws like the one in Texas, where a gun license is acceptable but a student ID is not.
This will not stand. Voting rights advocates can work with members of Congress to advance specific and wildly popular provisions of the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act, such as expanding early voting and making Election Day a federal holiday. We also need to decide a course of action on reforming the Electoral Count Act. Until now, reforming the ECA has been floated by those who wanted to deflect attention and energy from the more important and comprehensive legislation. It must not now become a substitute for more far-reaching action, either. But it could be one useful step that we should weigh.
At the same time, we will turn our attention to voters. The antidote to massive voter suppression is massive voter registration and mobilization. We will help voters understand and overcome new barriers that have been put in place in their states.
Of course, the ultimate solution to the filibuster blockade is to replace senators who defend voter suppression with senators who will defend democracy. Given the realities of a Republican caucus that voted in lockstep to prevent voting rights from even getting a vote, that will mean working to elect more Democratic senators.
What makes this possible is the breadth and energy of the pro-democracy movement. Organizations with a diverse set of primary issues have come to understand that their ability to make change goes hand in hand with protecting democracy. We have brought this conversation into the broader culture through the voices of religious leaders, entertainers and even professional sports figures.
We will keep the faith. We will keep fighting. Because when we fight together, we can win.
Ben Jealous is currently president of People For the American Way in Washington, D.C. and is the former national president & CEO of the NAACP.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.