US Senate poised to strike down voting rights legislation a day after commemoration of MLK

Senator Sinema upholds filibuster rule, paving the way for historic voting rights legislation to be shot down by Republicans

January 19, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Organizations marched on MLK day to demand protection of voting rights. Photo: RFK Human Rights

Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema has dealt what many view as a deadly blow to proposed voting rights legislation in the United States. Last Thursday, Sinema rejected changes to the Senate filibuster rule which would seek to slim the majority needed to pass voting rights legislation from 60 to 51 votes. These changes would enable the Democratic Party, which holds just 50 seats in the Senate, to pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which is unanimously opposed by Republicans. Without changes to the filibuster rule, which outlines the Senate procedure by which politicians can stall debate indefinitely on proposed legislation, this key legislation is poised to be stalled and rejected.

The move has been widely criticized especially for having taken place amid commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which honors the civil rights leader who among other struggles for justice led a bold struggle to guarantee equal voting rights for Black working people.

Legislation introduced to combat suppression

The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, named after late civil rights leader and member of Congress John Lewis, emerges in a context of a broader struggle for voting rights in the United States. In response to recent Republican attacks on voting rights, especially those of Black people, activists and voters pushed the Biden Administration to quickly introduce legislation enshrining voting rights. In 2021, the House of Representatives passed the For the People Act, an ambitious piece of progressive legislation which would have addressed corruption and voter suppression in myriad ways, among them loosening absentee voting and registration restrictions. Once again, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema killed the bill once it arrived to the Senate by opposing changes to the filibuster, ensuring that it would be stalled by Republican Senators.

Following this defeat, but with the people of the United States continuing to put pressure on the government, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats introduced two less ambitious bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, eventually combined into The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.

The Freedom to Vote Act was essentially the For the People Act in a watered down form, cutting provisions such as requiring presidential candidates to submit tax returns, prohibiting members of Congress from sitting on corporate boards, and requiring all states to mail absentee ballot applications to all voters. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would have addressed race-based voter discrimination by reactivating the strengthening elements of the civil-rights-era Voting Rights Act. With the two acts combined, the bill still proposes strong protections for Black voters who are targets of voter suppression, such as requiring states and jurisdictions to obtain permission from the federal government to change voting laws if they have too many voting rights violations. The bill could also ease the process of voting for millions of working people by making Election Day a federal holiday, allowing same-day voting registration, and restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

Voting rights under attack after Georgia win

Right-wing attacks on voting rights increased the urgency of voting reform. In the past two years, after Republican politicians suffered a string of losses in the Southern part of the United States, historically viewed as a conservative stronghold, the Republican Party went on the offensive, introducing hundreds of measures to limit voting. Republicans became acutely concerned by the victories of Democratic Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, as well as the victory of Joe Biden over Trump, in which former red state Georgia was key.

A notable battle between the more demographically diverse “New South” group of voters and the entrenched conservative political class resulted in the election of Warnock, a pastor and activist who became the first Black Senator of Georgia and the first Black Democrat elected to represent a former confederate state in the Senate. He defeated incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her Senate seat. During the election, Loeffler called Warnock a “radical” and a “socialist”, claims that were also made against fellow Black pastor Martin Luther King Jr..

Warnock’s win symbolized an upheaval of entrenched conservative power in the South, brought about by waves of protest against racism as well as the demographic shifts in the South, resulting in a voter base that is younger, with higher percentage being Black and Latino, and ideologically more against the Republican establishment.

In response, conservative legislators introduced a slew of bills restricting voting rights. Conservative Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed into law a bill that outlaws mobile voting sites, limits absentee ballots, and prohibits the distribution of food and water to voters waiting in line. This law most affects Georgia’s Black voters, for whom it is most common to wait in hours-long lines due to systemic voting inequality.

The US has a history of suppressing the votes of Black people in particular, harkening back to the Jim Crow South, in which the mobs of the Ku Klux Klan would terrorize Black people and keep them away from the ballot box while legislators enacted restrictions such as poll taxes and literacy tests, barring the largely illiterate and poor Black working class from voting. This most recent bout of voting rights attacks is nothing new, a point that activists on the ground have stressed.

Filibuster a “Jim Crow relic”

Democratic senators Sinema and Manchin have stood firm in their support for the filibuster. The filibuster, a process by which Senators can indefinitely stall legislation unless 60 Senators vote to end the filibuster, has been utilized frequently by Republicans. The tactic gained a close association with conservative Senator Mitch McConnell, who used it to stymie any Obama administration legislation in an effort to make Barack Obama a “one term president”.

Now, Democrats seek to reform the power of the filibuster to ensure that their legislation doesn’t get trapped. All 50 Senate Republicans unanimously oppose the voting rights bill, so allowing a filibuster would deal a death blow as the 50 Senate Democrats cannot muster support from 10 more Republicans in order to end the filibuster and move the bill through Congress.

Democrats have also proposed changes such as a return to the talking filibuster, in which a Senator has to speak for hours to hold the filibuster, as well as creating an exception for a majority vote on a single issue such as voting. With a majority vote, Democrats would be able to pass the voting rights bill as Vice President Kamala Harris would serve as the tie-breaker. Without changes to the filibuster, there is virtually no chance that this bill will pass in the Senate.

Obama himself called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” due to the tactic’s racist past. It was heavily used in the 19th century among pro-slavery Senators, notably John C. Calhoun. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s time, Senator Strom Thurmond led the longest filibuster in US history, speaking for 24 hours straight in opposition to the Civil Rights Act. The act eventually passed, outlawing racial discrimination and segregation. However, many anti-racist bills did not survive the filibuster, which killed voting rights legislation in the late 19th century and the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of the 1920s, which would have made lynching a federal crime, which has not happened to this day.

Sinema claimed that her support for the filibuster comes out of a fear of so-called division between the Democratic and Republican Parties, and that the majority party would have too much power if unchecked by a filibuster.

Although both Sinema and Manchin claim to support the voting rights bill, the two most conservative Democratic Senators have been responsible for numerous sabotages of progressive legislation, including the enormous social spending bill Build Back Better. Many have pointed to their donations from the pharmaceutical, financial, and fossil fuel industries, as well as Republican donors, as the hidden reason behind their conservative agendas.

The outlook looks grim on the Senate floor for the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. But legislation’s groundswell of support among working people does not appear to be abating. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, numerous activists and organizations, including King’s family, marched in the nation’s capital in support of voting rights. Initiatives to safeguard voting rights and voter protections have historically been popular among the people of the US and groundbreaking legislation to guarantee rights such as the Civil Rights Act passed despite attempts to filibuster. Even if this current bill is stalled in the Senate, evidence suggests that the struggle will continue.